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Applicant Index foreword: “This cohort of students will shape our world”

6 July 2023

In his foreword for Unite Students’ 2023 Applicant Index report, Richard Smith – Chief Executive at Unite Students – shares his thoughts on our findings about this year’s university applicants, and what they mean for the Higher Education sector.

This autumn sees the thirteenth cohort of new students arriving at university since I first came into the student accommodation sector in late 2010. Many things have remained the same over those years: most new students are keen to make new friends, they expect a rounded student experience and have a strong desire to belong. They are looking towards the future, in the sense that employability is front of mind, but also through the causes that they care about and the world they want to create.

But the world around us has changed in the intervening years – technologically, economically and socially. The student body is significantly bigger, more diverse and more international than it used to be. Students are now coming to university just a few years after their lives and their education were significantly disrupted by Covid. The Applicant Index provides tracking, and endeavours to make sense of the impact these changes have on university applicants. At the time of writing the cost of living is front of mind for most families in the UK and beyond, and it is no surprise that this is having a continued and meaningful effect on university applicants.

This year’s applicants have a higher level of budgeting skills than last year’s cohort and there is a sense that they are beginning to adapt to a reality that was still very new this time last year. The majority of applicants have already undertaken paid work and this seems to have provided them with valuable additional skills and benefits, but the Student Academic Experience Survey 2023 has shown that over-reliance on paid work can be detrimental to student wellbeing and study.

I’m particularly mindful of those who do not have family and friends to fall back on. They are particularly vulnerable in a difficult financial climate, and I am determined that we will continue to provide financial and community support to care experienced and estranged students through the Unite Foundation.

It is encouraging to see a small bounce-back in student wellbeing this year, but this sits within a context of a downward trend. Although the proportion of applicants with an existing mental health condition has not gone up this year the fact remains that one in five are affected, and for many new students this has already affected their education. The level of anxiety among applicants is a particular concern, and the fact that half are anxious that they will not fit in at university. Higher education offers a valuable opportunity for human interaction in an increasingly digital world and we could go further to reassure applicants about the welcoming and inclusive community that they will be joining.

I have been struck by the disadvantage and poorer wellbeing experienced by LGBTQ+ applicants, which is especially acute for Trans applicants. This is a group that has been the subject of heated debate on points of principle, and yet in practical terms here is a group of young people who experience very high levels of anxiety, poor wellbeing and a higher incidence of disabilities and health conditions.

The relative reluctance among LGBTQ+ applicants to share important information as part of the application process suggests a lack of trust in universities and their partners, and yet there is already plenty of inclusive practice within the higher education sector that could be communicated more clearly to applicants. Next year we will carry out further research on the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in their accommodation with the aim of improving their wellbeing and sense of belonging, and their confidence about going to university.

Working towards a fairer and more inclusive society is everyone’s business. Within the property sector this is usually categorised as the “S” within ESG – the “Social” which typically receives a lot less attention than the Environmental and Governance aspects.

Over the last two years I have seen universities and private accommodation providers come together to address the poorer experience of Black students in their accommodation, and commitments to action that will enable a better accommodation experience for neurodivergent students. This is encouraging, but there is much more to do to ensure diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in both education and employment. I would particularly like to encourage the property sector to step forward further into this space and consider what difference we could make if we work together for social impact.

Those who start university this autumn do so in a time of economic and political uncertainty. They will graduate in a world dominated by technological and social change and, most likely, a period of continued inequality and division. What they learn and experience at university needs to prepare them for this. The Applicant Index shows us that, despite the anxieties they face, they show a level of adaptability and resilience that will serve them well and we must ensure that we all play our part in preparing them for the challenges ahead. This cohort of students, and those that will follow, will shape our world and we should remain positive about their ability to make it a better one.

You can read the full Unite Students 2023 Applicant Index on our website.

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