Navigation Toggle Icon

The future of social impact in Higher Education

14 December 2023

It’s the final episode in our series on the future of sustainability in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA)! This time we’re looking at social impact, and how student accommodation can give back to local communities through community projects, volunteering and outreach.

Our guests dive into their own social impact initiatives, as well as student engagement, their experiences of ‘town and gown’ tensions, and what the future might look for social impact within Higher Education and PBSA.

Hosted by Jen Steadman, Higher Education Comms Executive at Unite Students, this episode’s guests include:

  • Kimberly Eyre, Residential Life Manager at Queen Mary University of London
  • Mike Leonard, Residential Property Manager at the University of Leeds
  • Rebecca Rymsza, Head of Brand and Communications at the Unite Foundation
  • Ivy Yarrow, Social Impact Manager at Unite Students

Special guest Darren Way, founder of youth intervention charity Streets of Growth, also joins us to talk about how the charity has benefited from finding a stable home at Unite Students’ Hayloft Point property in Aldgate, London.

Episode transcript: ‘The future of social impact in Higher Education’

Jen Steadman: Hello and welcome to Accommodation Matters. As ever, we’re looking at the big issues in higher education through the lens of student accommodation. I’m Jen Steadman, and this is the final instalment in our Future of Sustainability mini-series.

We’ve already looked at the future of environmental sustainability, and race and inclusion in student accommodation, and today we’re going to be looking at the future of social impact in higher education and asking how student accommodation can have a positive impact on local communities. I’m joined by a panel who are incredibly passionate about creating a positive impact in their communities.

We’re joined by Mike Leonard, Residential Property Manager at the University of Leeds. Hi, Mike.

Mike Leonard: Hi there.

Jen: Kimberly Eyre is the Residential Life Manager at Queen Mary University of London. Welcome, Kimberly.

Kimberly Eyre: Oh, thank you. Hello, everyone.

Jen: Rebecca Rymsza, or Beki, is Head of Brand and Communications at the Unite Foundation.

Beki Rymsza: Hi.

Jen: Last but certainly not least, we have Ivy Yarrow, Social Impact Manager at Unite Students. Hello there, Ivy.

Ivy Yarrow: Hi, thanks for having me.

Jen: One thing I’ve learned from putting together this episode is that social impact means different things to different people. For some people, it’s about social justice, for others it’s really heavily linked to environmental sustainability.

Ivy, what do we mean when we talk about social impact at Unite Students?

Ivy: Thanks, Jen. Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. When we’re talking about social impact as the ‘S’ in ‘ESG’, that covers a really broad range of areas. Health and safety, diversity inclusion, training and education. Certainly at Unite Students, our sustainability strategy covers all of those areas in a way that’s really embedded across lots of different functions in the business. For me, as Social Impact Manager, my primary area of focus is around communities.

That covers our national partnerships with charities like British Heart Foundation, but also those programs that aim to create a more localized impact, such as our partnerships with Streets of Growth and Maha Devi, through our community spaces, providing a home for charities that need it, and the community projects that happen through the Positive Impact scheme and a lot more.

I think for me, it’s quite simple. Our buildings and student accommodation will always inevitably have some form of impact in the communities that they operate in, whether it’s a new development or a building that’s been around for a bit longer. Our social impact programmes are our opportunity to make sure that impact is a positive one.

Jen: Perfect. We’ll be talking a bit more about the Positive Impact scheme a little bit later on. I just want to think about the concept of ‘town and gown’. It’s been around since the 13th century, this idea that there’s a divide between universities and local communities. That feels really relevant in the context of social impact in higher education, particularly when it comes to student accommodation. It can sometimes be seen as negative for local communities.

Mike, is that something you’ve seen play out in Leeds? How much does it drive your approach to social impact?

Mike: It’s something that we’ve had for over many years since the Second World War, as student numbers increase, so the pressure on the local community. I think the term ‘studentification’ came around in about 2002. That was, I think, based on the experience in Leeds. That basically encouraged us to think about our housing strategy, where we’re going to actually accommodate students. Then, thankfully, purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) started arriving in Leeds.

Also, the local community got together. The Headingley Development Trust started roughly about then. Everything was geared towards reducing the impact of students on the area. We played our part. We sold several of our sites, which are now family accommodation. The whole area has changed since those days of the 1990s. Yes, that’s something that we know very well in Leeds.

Jen: Thanks, Mike. That’s really interesting. I didn’t realize that’s where the term ‘studentification’ came from. I’ve definitely learned something already.

Kimberly, I’m wondering about you as well. Is it a similar picture in London?

Kimberly: I think it’s a little bit different in London. I think because London is such a large city and it can accommodate so many different communities, that tension between students at Queen Mary and the wider East London isn’t maybe as present as the towns and villages that are almost defined by the communities that are based in them. Where I do see a comparison to what Mike has talked a little bit about is the pressure on affordable housing, the pressure on land, the way that government policy dictates where accommodation can and can’t be built.

I think one of the positives for Queen Mary is it has been based in East London for the entire time it’s been here, and it’s had a really strong social justice mission right from the outset. As part of that, it’s worked very hard to engage the local community and to be able to confer some of the benefits onto the local community. Then I hope that that means that there is maybe less resentment than there might be in other places.

I think, and this is probably true in Leeds as much as everywhere else, the university brings with it the capability to make large scale investments. We have accommodation across three campuses – one of which, as it happens, I live on, and that’s based in Whitechapel, which is an area that’s changing incredibly rapidly. There are still parts of Whitechapel that are derelict or buildings that are out of date or areas that are no longer fit for purpose. The university has been able to bring with it funding to transform some of that, to bring a state of the art life science centre.

Jen: Yes, I think that visibility of the positive impact that you’re having is so important for getting local communities on the side.

It’s funny you should mention Whitechapel because our newest London building, Hayloft Point, is also in Tower Hamlets. It’s in that building where local charity Streets of Growth are based. Earlier, I caught up with Darren Way from Streets of Growth to hear a little bit about the charity, who they are, what they do, and how they got started.

Darren Way: Yes, Streets of Growth was founded on the back of neighbours who were, like me, tired of the antisocial behaviour – gangs, drug dealing, criminality taking place on our council estates in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, East London, in the mid to late 1990s.

I got involved in community work in 1995 after leaving the construction industry, and started to really question the very professionals, not only the gangs and the exploitation that was going on with young people, to be involved in drug dealing and criminality. I was very fortunate to win a fellowship to represent the UK in America, and I went to the Bronx, Philadelphia on a Winston Churchill Fellowship where I studied best practice intervention to try and tackle what today we see as knife crime, gun crime, gangs, child exploitation. That’s really how Streets of Growth was founded, really.

In 2001, we set the charity up in a dilapidated shopfront right in the heart of Bromley-by-Bow East London, and we had £10 and two chairs, but a very big ambition that we were going to grow a community-led organization that was properly grassroots and would actually challenge the field of youth work, community work, community regeneration, and challenge communities to live less harmful lifestyles.

Jen: Amazing. You relocated to Hayloft Point in 2022. What was the reason for that?

Darren: Really briefly – as mentioned, I set the charity up with Diane and the team in 2001. We had a little shopfront, it was only 15 foot by 15 foot. We moved from there to a community centre and quickly outgrew that. We went to a dilapidated print factory in 2010, and that was on a one-year lease, and we ended up staying there for five years. Then we moved on, as that was bulldozed for luxury apartments. We moved to redundant offices on the Canary Wharf Peninsula and were there for four years.

Then just before Covid, we moved to a nursery. Then Covid struck, we had to move out of the nursery for it to be a testing site for Covid and moved to Bethnal Green. Then we were told that that’s going to be closed because it’s going to be bulldozed for apartments or flats. That was going to be the end. We were close to closure after over 20 years of running a charity, everything we’d achieved with young people, we were facing closure.

It’s not easy moving five, six times thinking that you’re never going to have a home. It meant that we could never apply for long-term funding. You’ve got a six-month lease and you can’t get one-year funding because you can’t prove that you’re going to be there in a year’s time.

It had so many different effects on us. It meant that young people felt that they didn’t have a place in Tower Hamlets, and seeing us as a charity being pushed from pillar to post, they started to say, “Well, if you’re a charity helping us and you don’t have any certainty, why should we as young people?” It was having a massive negative effect on the community that we work with.

We’d heard that Unite were building a building and were tendering out for the use of this space here at Hayloft Point. To be honest with you, we genuinely thought, why would we win it? Then we thought, we’ve worked so hard for what we do, and we’re so good at what we do, let’s give it a shot and put an application in to have an interview. That’s how it all came about.

Jen: I was part of that process, and I just remember being blown away by the presentation. It’s amazing that 18 months on, here you are in the space. How has Streets of Growth benefited from being based at Hayloft Point? Also, how has the local community benefited from that so far?

Darren: First of all, what I would say is to have a space that has a three-year lease, we’ve never had such certainty. Straight away, you feel like you’ve got a home. For the first time in 22 years, you’ve got a home. The fact that we were being supported by a big organisation like Unite… we’ve always had to try and run dilapidated spaces on our own. If the roof leaks, you’ve got to get up there and solve it. We were really working hand to mouth.

To have a space that’s right on the fringes of Tower Hamlets, East London and the City – right on that what we call ‘the earthquake’, really, between like the haves and have nots, the poverty that’s really in your face and such wealth… To have such a beautiful building that we have here, usually people see youth work and the work we do that runs out of it or bingo halls and stuff like that, and I think that this has changed the game on what’s possible. Because people are coming here, the young people come here and go, “Is this for us?”

They don’t feel they’re deserving of it. That’s been really humbling, the fact that they walk in and say I can come in here, and like we’re saying, yes, this is for you. Some of them have been in tears. It just shows you that when you live in poor communities, how hopeless you can become.

Why am I saying this? Because I think it’s been one of the most important things in our tenure here, the fact that we’ve got young people coming here going this is for me, this is to help me grow, this is to get me away from harm, this is to try and help me get into school, into jobs. I can’t underestimate what that has done. It has given our young people who feel so pushed out a sense of space and a sense of place in this borough. You cannot put a price on that.

Jen: It’s amazing to hear how it’s having such profound impact on the young people that you work with. Obviously Unite Students works with young people as well, and it’s nice to really be able to bridge that gap help these young people feel like this is a space for them through that partnership. How have you been able to help your local community through your stewardship of the of the space?

Darren: I’d say what’s been interesting. I’ll run through a couple of things on this question. First of all, people like me who are from the borough myself, we didn’t know who Unite Students were, genuinely didn’t know who Unite Students were. A lot of our young people in my upbringing, we weren’t encouraged to go to university. You left school, and because you were in poorer families, the need was to go and earn money and pay keep to your parents, or go into crime and earn money that way. We didn’t really know about Unite Students.

What’s happened now is now that Streets of Growth are in partnership here in this building with Unite Students, and having conversations about what Unite Students are – we’re now having more conversations than we’ve ever done about young people in Tower Hamlets having the ambition and support to try and go into higher education and university, and even doing it in another country as they see other people from all around the world come in here. Really seeing the students that you have here from all around the world makes our young people say, “There’s a bigger world out there than my street.”

Again, geographically, that’s opened up a lot of possibility in terms of our community seeing that just because you’re from a poor background doesn’t mean you have to be denied an education. Having an organisation like Streets of Growth linked with Unite, not necessarily two organisations you would have put together, but here we are, we’ve been helping your students not get caught up with any of the harm that’s going on in the community, we’ve been keeping the Unite Students safe through being present here, and having Unite Security here has helped to keep us safe as an organisation here. It’s not one giving the other.

I genuinely believe it’s been a one plus one equals three partnership. To have a visit from the Princess of Wales to say this Streets of Growth is a model of best practice and to meet Unite CEOs and managers to say this is a very unique partnership, very interesting, should do more of it. We’re now on the global stage. That went around to 24 media outlets around the world. It’s interesting now this little partnership between Unite Students and Streets of Growth has been such a massive impact on the local community and global stage, if I’m to be honest.

Jen: How has the partnership changed your opinion on what student accommodation is in local community?

Darren: Yes, I’ll be really honest with you. We came and interviewed to try and be a charity based in one of your pioneering sites, and I hear about the community you set up here where they can come and hang out, and they’ve got breakout spaces, and they’ve got people to support them, and you’ve got mental health units upstairs next to our theatre where you can have one-to-ones.

I think that this whole package that Unite offer, it’s a community. I don’t think it’s a student accommodation. I think you are offering a student accommodation community. The main thing that comes up when I speak to your students outside when they’re having a break is safety. They feel safe.

Jen: We need to get you into our marketing department! It’s great to hear that, and it’s great to hear that those conversations that you’re having independently with the students in our buildings are saying great things like that.

My final question then really is just, what’s next for Streets of Growth? Have you got exciting plans for 2024?

Darren: In January, we are working with professionals around building Streets of Growth’s five-year business plan in alignment with the lease we have here at Unite, and we’ve never been able to do that before. We can now try and set a five-year vision for the organisation in order to give our young people and users a longer term change process at Streets of Growth. We’re going to be doing fresh events and new projects.

Yes, it’s mainly around positioning the charity to be in a far healthier place both staff-wise and funding-wise, healthier partnerships, we’ve built amazing relationships with the Met Police, and really to work with up to 400 young people a year to remove them from gun gang and knife crime and harm.


Jen: We’ve heard from Darren about how PBSA can support local communities, and I know that all four of today’s guests have their own social impact stories to share.

Beki, the Unite Foundation celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year, and your 10-year report was a real testament to how transformative work in this space can be. Can you tell us a little bit about the Unite Foundation and what impact it’s had since it was launched in 2012?

Beki: Sure. If you haven’t heard of the Unite Foundation, we’re a national charity that supports estranged and care experienced students with a free home at university. As you said, we turned 10 last year, so that was a really good opportunity for us to look back on 10 years’ worth of data to see what the impact of the scholarship is.

We worked with Jisc to analyse 10 years’ worth of data, and that basically evidenced that students on the scholarship progress from first to second year of university at the same rate as non-care leaver students, complete their degree closer to the rate of non-care leaver students, and are within three-percentage points of non-care leaver students in getting first or 2:1 plus degrees. We basically learned last year that the scholarship really works.

Since then, we’ve been able to secure over £500,000 in additional funding to deliver 42 new scholarships working with a new range of university partners. We work with universities all across the country, so we’ve added to our network, which is brilliant. Based on that, our vision is that backed by evidence that we continue to build on free accommodation for estranged and care experienced students is provided as standard support by all UK universities. That’s our vision.

In addition to running the scholarship, which is our core area of work, over the past year, we’ve also been working on building All Of Us, which is the community for all estranged and care experienced students across the UK. To be a part of that community, you don’t have to be on the Unite Foundation scholarship. It’s there to connect everybody from an estranged or care experienced background at university, and that’s growing really quickly.

We’ve had lots of events take place over the country over the course of the year, and we’ve got various things going on, but one thing we do have is an online space set up people to join and connect online, and we’ve got nearly 900 members there, and that’s just hopefully going to continue to grow

Jen: That’s fantastic. It’s really taking it out to a wider audience and creating more of a peer-to-peer support network, which we know is really impactful for students. Thinking about that wider community benefit, I know that Queen Mary’s published a report on the significant economic and social impacts that it’s had on the UK economy, as well as the local economy.

Kimberly, I’d love to hear more about that social impact and what work you’ve undertaken at Queen Mary to benefit that wider community.

Kimberly: Well, certainly. I guess the first thing to say about Queen Mary – for anybody who’s not familiar with it – is, it’s a Russell Group University who’s incredibly proud of the fact that it welcomes more students than anybody else does from underrepresented backgrounds in higher education.

I don’t want to bog you down with too many statistics, but I’ll give you a couple just to give you a picture of why this is a really special place for students. 71% of the students at Queen Mary are from BAME backgrounds. 47% of them are the first to attend a higher education institution in their family. 93% of them are from state schools, but nonetheless they’re able to get that Russell Group education.

You asked me about a report that Queen Mary put together. It was commissioned to look at what its social impact was and the benefits to the wider community, and I suppose it had two major takeaways. It recognised that the investment that it was making, almost on a pound by pound basis, was being returned at a much higher level. It would say something like for every pound that Queen Mary spent, it generated £7 for the economy.

What it also recognised – this goes back to the point that you asked at the very beginning about the relationship between the location of the institution in the wider community – is that a lot of the benefits that it was conferring were actually happening in East London. They were translating not only into actual jobs for people, but also it had a knock-on effect for suppliers.

I’ll give you a really small example. I run a residential life program. We have an events calendar, like every residential life program. When I look at where are we spending money, we spend money at Genesis Cinema, which is a local independent cinema. We use local bakers, we use local merchants, and we’re a really small budget holder when you look at the wider university. Queen Mary was able, through that report, to break down the fact that it’s generating £610 million in expenditures on goods and services, and upwards of 60% or more of that was being spent in East London.

I guess I’m talking about the community, but I think the other thing that really makes a difference with how it intersects with students and opportunity. It begins really early. We have, at Queen Mary, a lot of outreach work, with primary schools, with secondary schools, to try to raise the ambition of students so that what they think is possible for them to achieve is maybe greater than what they’ve seen modelled in their own families, and to give them exposure to the kinds of things that you can access if you access a world-class higher education institution.

Also – you’ll know this as accommodation providers – if you’re welcoming students who are first-generation students into your halls of residence, sometimes they need more support than other students. They don’t always have the families who are able to sort of help them navigate that journey from first-hand experiences. We’re building in the support networks throughout the university, whether that’s our welfare team within accommodation or the wider student and academic services to make sure that those students are able to succeed.

I think more than that, the university recognises it’s partly that, but it’s also just enhancing opportunities. It’s building confidence. It’s helping them connect with networks of people who they might not have from their own backgrounds so that when they do graduate with a degree, they’re able to get the kinds of jobs that that degree entitles them to, or at least gives them access to.

On a smaller level, I think what we’re doing are even things like canal clean-ups, clothing swaps, those are more sustainability-led things, but also the partnerships that we have with the police, with the community enforcement officers, I’m going back to Whitechapel, but there are challenges in that area with antisocial behaviour. I think the university is doing quite a lot to make sure that the spaces are as safe as they possibly can be, not only for the students that are studying and living there, but also for the wider community and bringing forward some of the resources that we have.

Jen: That piece around working with primary school children to show them that university education is possible and helping to raise that ambition, really goes back to what Darren was saying in our little interview with him. There is a real link between those two things.

Kimberly: I bet the charities that you work with, certainly one of the things that, this isn’t my area, but I think it’s worth mentioning because it’s special, the Students’ Union runs a sports camp, and that sports camp is aimed at young people between the ages of eight and thirteen who may not have the ability to be involved in those kinds of activities if it was solely funded without subsidy from the university.

I think even if that doesn’t translate into somebody going to university, it still confers a certain amount of social capital on them that makes a difference when they’re entering the employment sphere, when they’re making connections with people, when they’re building relationships.

Jen: Definitely. You sort of touched a little bit on environmental sustainability. Mike, I know that that’s quite a big part of what University of Leeds social impact work looks like. You’ve recently been nominated for the prestigious Green Gown Awards. Could you tell us a bit about that social impact work and some of the outcomes you’ve seen so far?

Mike: We’re part of obviously a large university in Leeds, and lots of people do things, we call it social responsibility, but it’s pretty much the same thing. We’re talking about positive impact partners, where we’re working with third sector charities. We’re also talking about Leeds Living Lab, which is, amongst other things, biodiversity. That’s where we in accommodation can really help.

There’s roughly three strands of work. We’ve got student sustainability architects that go around doing biodiversity action plans for our sites. They stretch from inner Northwest Leeds into the city centre. There’s a benefit to the local environment there. That helps us provide stepping stones for wildlife and stuff like that.

We have been, since 2012, working with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, a lot of work around the Leeds and the Eyre Valley area, building leaky dams, willow spiralling, pulling hay, pulling bramble. This next week, we’re actually going up to Ingleborough with hopefully 25 volunteers to plant trees on the Wild Ingleborough Project, which is about 1,200 hectares. It’s a big project. It’s not just Leeds, it’s the Dales area as well. We’re going up there.

More importantly, coming back into Leeds, we’re using our estate for the Garewood Project. That’s again another 36 hectares, 60,000 trees going in there as part of the White Rose Project. More importantly, again, it’s the work that we do with partners like Unite Students.

We have a very good project that’s been running now. It’s in its third year at North Hill Well Wood. North Hill Well Wood is actually part of the Woodhouse Ridge, which is like a local nature reserve in Leeds. We have helped by clearing a very overgrown space to create a glade effect. We’ve left the wood on site to rot down into different piles. It attracts invertebrates, in turn it attracts hedgehogs, and also other things like fungi and all sorts of things there.

We do about five or six sessions each year, and staff and students come down to help us on those. That’s been very successful, thanks to Unite helping with the funding. That’s ongoing. We’re doing stuff on the big scale, but we’re also doing stuff locally that has benefits to the community in Northwest Leeds. Also we’re getting children from the local school, Shire Oak School, coming in and doing forest school activities about biodiversity monitoring, tree monitoring.

Jen: What I’m loving about this is that, I said at the beginning of the episode that social impact means a lot of different things. That’s really coming through in all the examples that you’ve all mentioned so far. It’s great to hear all the different ways in which universities and accommodation can really have this positive impacts on their communities. I’m sure that our listeners will be taking away some ideas that maybe they’ve not thought about before in terms of the role that they can have in their local area.

I just wanted to go back to that point about the Well Wood Project. It’s part of Unite Students Positive Impact project. I’m hoping, Ivy, that you can tell us a little bit about that. I know we’ve got some Positive Impact Awards coming up. I don’t know if you can tell us about some of the other projects that fall under that remit, and explain, obviously, what Positive Impact is.

Ivy: Yes, absolutely, Jen. We were a part of NUS’s Green Impact programme for a number of years. Then in 2018, we evolved it into what is now known as Positive Impact. What that enabled us to do was to really focus in on the opportunities that are specific to what we do as an accommodation provider within both environmental and social sustainability.

As it exists now, there’s three awards; bronze, silver, and gold. Bronze award is given to teams who complete a list of actions that are around our business-as-usual sustainability activity. That’s recycling, energy usage, student engagement. The silver and gold awards are where the impact starts to get a little bit more far-reaching and deeper. That’s given to teams who conduct and are involved in local community projects that aim to have an impact in their locality across all of our different teams in both our support functions and in city operations.

The Well Wood project is a great example of that. Building on what Mike was saying, that project’s a great example of how environmental and social sustainability interact with each other. On the surface, it’s very much focused on biodiversity, but it’s also enabled opportunities for local schools to come and do field trips on the site and build those networks. It brings together so many different stakeholders in the space that’s created by the project. That is a great example.

Another one that I think is really great to highlight is the new project this year that’s being run as a joint effort between our procurement, risk and assurance, and insight and analytics team, where they’ve built a long-term partnership with Young Bristol, who are a charity that provide youth clubs all over the city. Now, as part of their project, they’ve done volunteering directly with the youth clubs to help renew some of their outdoor areas at their site.

They’ve also essentially created a whole community consultation to help develop one of their youth clubs in a really deprived area of Bristol to inform their strategy of how to develop that site moving forward, and ensure that they’re creating programmes that really genuinely meet the needs of the population. They’ve dug in deeper to say, okay, we’ll take that to the community and ask what they need so they can adapt their services to that.

I think what a great example of a project that can create that really long-term impact for young people in the area, but also do that by utilising the skills that our teams already have.

Jen: That’s brilliant. Obviously I work for Unite as well. My team has its own project. We’re working with Help Bristol Homeless, and we’re only in the early stages of that, but it’s really fulfilling to be a part of that. I can give a little shout out there.

Ivy: Another great example of using skills-based volunteering, the comms team that Jen is part of are providing communication support to charity that really need it and helping to build their communication strategy. Another great example.

Jen: Thanks, Ivy. We found in our 2023 Applicant Index about half of applicants, I think it’s 52%, want to get involved in volunteering when they’re at university. We’ve got some exciting research coming up next year, and this shows that that figure is pretty much borne out while they’re at university. About 48% of students are involved in volunteering at university, which I’d say is a figure that really surprised me. I definitely don’t think I did any volunteering when I was a student.

Mike, you’ve talked a bit about student engagement at Leeds. I’m just wondering if you want to talk a little bit more about that, or if anyone else wanted to come in and share how they engage students with their social impact work.

Mike: I think we’re just one small cog in a big wheel, shall we say. There’s a lot of it going on at the university which I’m not aware of, and we’ve also got a student volunteering office in the university. There’s lots of activities going across a big area. We hope to generate interest by setting up Residence Life social committees at the residence level.

Yes, we do have a Residence Life team here, but in turn, we also directly communicate with the students and offer them opportunities. The events go out on Residence Life social networks, and also hopefully by word of mouth. Yes, we’ve run six events each year for both North Hill Well Wood and with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and they’ve proved very popular. Some will come only just for one occasion, but others will come time and time again.

Kimberly: Yes, I wanted to look at it from a slightly different angle. I agree with you that the desire to volunteer bears out in student decision making, and I know at Queen Mary, part of the feedback we’ve had from our students is they want to do that because they care a lot about building their CVs, and about their employability post-education, and I think that’s okay. I think that’s a great way of mobilising students.

What we do at Queen Mary too that I’m sort of proud of, and this isn’t volunteering per se, but we do incentivise students to use their own voice to be able to communicate what their student experience looks like, and you’re going to say, well, how is this relevant to the conversation, but I think it is because I think it goes back to that social justice piece around who’s visible, who gets to have a say, what is the conversation.

In our Residential Life department, we invest heavily in our Digital Creators program, which is something that the Campus Life team support us with, and essentially that is training to allow students to be able to create content that represents them at their best, and it allows them to be able to sort of syndicate that through our channels which has huge levels of engagement, and again it goes back to how does the experience that they’re having at university set them up for success later on, and for them to be able to, “I had a video or a reel that was viewed by x number of people that can be pretty powerful.”

Beki: I was just going to build on that to say that we do the exact same thing. In 2020, we rebranded the Unite Foundation, and in doing so, we created platforms for students on the scholarship to basically run those platforms. Our comms team employs lots of students through the year who basically run all of our social media channels, content for the website, take part in campaigns, and is with the exact same attention that they basically they’re the experts in their own experience at university, and they’re given the platforms to speak for themselves.

Kimberly: It is important to say that yes, students are by and large very engaged with social justice and wanting to do the right thing, but also they’ve got to be pretty savvy in the current job market and building up that CV for the future.

Jen: I think that’s a great point, and it’s not something I’d necessarily come into this thinking about.

We’ve looked at the current landscape for social impact within HE and student accommodation, so I just want us to think about the future. At the recent Wonkhe and University of London Festival of Higher Education, there was a real emphasis on the importance of universities being a part of their local community.

I just wanted to ask you guys, is there anything you’d really like to see in terms of better integrating universities and PBSA into local communities, and how do you think this might change in the coming years?

Kimberly: I think we’re going to see, at least where I am at, a wider range of diversity within our own staffing structures, and ensuring that that diversity isn’t only reflected in the lowest paying jobs at the institution, but is reflected throughout the organisation, and that students again have the ability to see themselves in the institutions that they make valid. I do think that that’s going to be one of the shifts.

Jen: That’s a great point, and it actually links into our last episode where we talked about race and inclusion in student accommodation. It’s one of the things that came up in the Living Black at University report was the importance of having a staff that really reflects the student body and the local community. Beki?

Beki: Mine might be slightly off track. Obviously, just from in terms of how we work, obviously we’re not a university, we’re not a purpose-built student accommodation provider. I think from a community perspective, I think something that we would really like to see is just for universities and accommodation providers to just being really aware of different student communities, thinking about them and thinking about their experiences, and also doing what they can to help better forge those connections.

Jen: The more communities of students that feel welcome in accommodation, the more that’s going to have an impact on the wider community. Yes, I think that’s a good point.

Kimberly: One thing we haven’t touched on explicitly is economics and how the changing funding structures for higher education, both in terms of home students and international students, is that going to impact what the future of our accommodation looks like. Will it become more egalitarian? Will there be more affordable housing? Will there be housing for maybe students from more diverse backgrounds, different ages, or do we think that it’s going to swing in the other direction, and higher education is going to become maybe less successful? Maybe there’ll be a rise in, I don’t know, apprenticeship schemes or something.

I don’t want to broaden it too much, but I do think that when we’re thinking about what does the future of accommodation and higher education look like, certainly, again, at Queen Mary where we have a really diverse group of students, many of whom aren’t from wealthy backgrounds, I think we as institutions are going to have to be more transparent about what that value for money piece looks like, what students are actually getting when they’re purchasing accommodation. I think we’re going to continue to see students as customers with expectations and in the universities and providers having a duty of care that will be held more firmly to account too.

Mike: I think from Kimberly’s point there, we’re looking at probably the Chinese and Indian students reaching a certain level, and that may now plateau off, and we’re talking about other international students coming in that may be from less well-off backgrounds.

I think that universities would have to carefully think about how they plan their accommodation and what they offer by way of rent structure, because I think some universities tend to have a high level of rents across the piece, which actually could be prohibitive to people coming into those universities. Thankfully at least we have quite a variable rent structure that allows people to come in who are on the basic funding. We’ve always had that at Leeds, and I think that’s what we wish to see maintained.

Kimberly: Beki, I’m sorry to put you on the spot, but your role is really interesting, your institution is really interesting because we at Queen Mary take a lot of interest in care leavers, and again, how do we support that? What’s the feedback? You said at the outset of the interview that your institution in part exists to provide scholarships to ensure that these students can access higher education. What do you hear on the ground from them? What are they looking for, and how does that feed into Jen’s question about the future? I appreciate they’re a minority, but still an important minority.

Beki: I always want to be really careful. I’m not speaking on behalf of students because obviously it’s their experience, it’s not mine. We do get any positive feedback from students in terms of what the scholarship means to them and enables them to do. I think certainly finance is a massive issue, and the provision of a free home at university alleviates, it doesn’t cancel, but alleviates some financial concern, and frees people up to make the most of being at university because that part of the things they need to consider is covered.

Then there’s lots of things beyond what we do that we obviously hear about as well, and things that people are looking for. Community and connection is one of them, which is obviously why we’ve built that into our sort of bigger longer term strategy. Also lots of people talk about mental health support. That’s definitely a big issue for people. I’d say that’s probably the thing that comes out most commonly. We basically provide the home at university, but then there are lots of students who aren’t on the scholarship that still need support around accommodation that we’re trying to influence.

One of the things that we’re looking at the moment is guarantor provision and the assumption that you ask your parents to be your guarantor if you need a guarantor for a private accommodation, and obviously the majority of care experienced and estranged students don’t have that option. At the moment, we’re basically leading a working group with universities across the country to help universities set up their own guarantor schemes for estranged and care experienced students so that they, basically in some way shape or form, will be the guarantor for those students who can’t fall back on family if they’re asked.

That’s something that’s quite a big project for us at the moment, beyond the provision of a free home.

Jen: One of the things that came up at the Festival of Higher Education was… We’ve recently had this autumn budget, it looks like there’s going to be further cuts for funding for local services, and the Festival of Higher Education took place before that autumn budget – but already they were talking about the potential for universities to actually be providing some of the services or widening access to some of the amenities that they have at institutions.

I’m particularly thinking in relation to accommodation, things like local community services operating out of the ground floor of a student accommodation building. There could almost be a bit of an opportunity really for accommodation and universities to maybe not provide local services, but it feels like there’s a real opportunity there.

Kimberly: I think you’re right that there is going to be increasing pressure on accommodation providers and institutions to fill in the gaps where previously some sort of government-funded entity was doing the work. I think just to go back to Ivy’s point, or maybe it was Beki’s, about mental health.

I think that’s the really acute one at the minute. I can only speak from an institutional point of view, but we’re definitely experiencing that in accommodation and the gap between when somebody is in crisis and when they can access support and what that support looks like. It has put more pressure on university services to be able to deliver that and to step into the gaps. I’m sure every single one of us has examples and stories.

I think your point is valid, absolutely, as the government funding models change, but the customer expectation doesn’t, and what being part of a healthy, inclusive community is and the impact not just on the individual, but how that reverberates through their flat mates, through their classmates, through the wider community will have to be looked at by all of us.

Jen: We’re coming on to the final question. I’m just wondering, what’s one thing you’d like to achieve in terms of social impact to your organization in 2024?

Ivy: I suppose there’s two things for me. Just on a personal level, I would like to get to the stage where we have a community project active in all of our teams and cities across the UK. We’ve made really good progress this year, but the aim is to have that happening everywhere. I think just cutting that a little bit wider, looking at PBSA more generally, just continue asking that question of not just what our people can do to help communities, but what our places can do.

We’ve seen really great impact through the partnerships with Streets of Growth and longer term with Maha Devi and other examples in other cities, seeing where we can replicate that, not just in our new developments, but in our existing effect as well.

Jen: That’s great. Mike, are you coming in next?

Mike: Yes. From our point of view, we’re very strong with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and they’ve just announced their strategy for a wilder Yorkshire. I hope that we’ll become a strong stakeholders in that, just a lot more of the same, perhaps, but in a stronger, bigger landscape approach that Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are talking about. More of the same, I think.

Kimberly: For me, I suppose I want to continue to develop our events program and our digital communication channels to reflect the diversity at the institution. There has to be collaboration with 170 nationalities represented at the university. It’s figuring out a way when students are time poor and when they’re juggling work commitments and study commitments, how we get their voice in without it being too onerous. That’s part of my aspiration.

I want that then to continue to translate into our recruitment strategy. When we’re recruiting our residential assistants, for instance, and we’re doing a pretty good job with this, but I want to make sure that we’re getting applications that reflect the full range of students that are living in our accommodation.

Jen: That’s great. Beki, last but not least.

Beki: I guess in terms of our core work, to continue to build on our evidence that a home at university is really impactful, to try and build that case for universities to provide a free home university for parents with restrained students. Then going back to the point about guarantor provisions, we’re working with around 16 universities at the moment, but that’s growing each month, actually, which is brilliant.

To increase the number of universities who do provide a guarantor scheme for estranged and co-experienced students, and then to continue to grow the student community so that estranged and co-experienced students feel sort of connected to each other and that university is somewhere where they feel that they really belong.

Jen: What a great note to end on. That’s all we’ve got time for. I’d like to thank all four of our amazing panellists, as well as Darren from Streets of Growth, for their time and insights. It’s been really great to hear from you all. I’ve learned so much.

This is our final episode of 2023, so thank you to Jenny Shaw, our usual host who does such a fantastic job helming the podcast, to our amazing producers who make us sound great, and finally to those of you who listen to the podcast each month. It’s been a great year for Accommodation Matters, and it’s all thanks to those of you who continue to support us by listening and subscribing.

We’ll be back in February with a new series, and we’ve got plenty of ideas, but do get in touch if there’s anything you’d like us to delve into. Have a great winter break, and we’ll see you next year.

Like what you read?

Click the sign up button to receive updates from us. 

Choose from the topics you’re most interested in, or our Higher Education newsletter, in which we share a selection of our latest research, blogs, podcasts and video content about student accommodation and wider student life.

You can unsubscribe or update your preferences at any time. Just click the link at the bottom of any email you receive from us or let us know by emailing

Sign up

Areas of interest(Required)
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.