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Student drug use: What accommodation teams need to know

10 July 2024

Universities UK recently released guidance for Higher Education – looking at how to tackle supply and demand for drugs and reduce harm. 

Jenny Shaw, Unite Students’ Higher Education External Engagement Director, was part of the taskforce that helped bring the guidance together. She looks at what the guidance says, why the guidance was created, and why it matters in the context of student accommodation. 


On 2nd July 2024, Universities UK launched ‘Enabling student health and success’, its guidance for the higher education sector on tackling supply and demand for drugs and reducing harm. Unite Students has sponsored this initiative from its early scoping back in 2021 and I have had the immense privilege of sitting on the Taskforce and sharing insights from across the student accommodation sector. What has been striking about the work, right from the start, is the level and breadth of expertise around the table, and the consistency of focus on student wellbeing. 

A former colleague once told me that when he was attending university open days with his own teenage children, he would always ask accommodation teams: “What kind of drugs problem do you have here?” I can only feel for the accommodation staff who had to field this question with no prior warning! However, there was a serious point there: some people use drugs and some of them are students living in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), so to pretend it never happens is unrealistic. And, as those who work in accommodation will attest, you have to deal with the world as it really is. 

This report does just that. It accepts the reality and then asks helpful questions about how we can support the safety and wellbeing of students: 

  • How do we reduce drug-related harms, both for students who use drugs and those who do not?  
  • How do we address supply issues on campus and in student accommodation, and mitigate the impact it has on students?  
  • How do we ensure students feel confident to come forward for help with mental and physical health issues and concerns about safety related to drug issues?  

So, what might change following the publication of the guidance? 

Firstly, it should help to bring clarity. The guidance paves the way for a more consistent approach to student drug use across the sector, one that is based on research, expert input and proven effective practice. Over the last two years I’ve heard several instances of universities taking a quiet harm-reduction approach but not feeling able to communicate about it explicitly. I’ve also heard student accommodation teams saying they are not able to join up their approach to drugs with their own university’s central policy because they are based on different understandings. The guidance should support the development of a more connected and student-centred approach across a university – and with its PBSA partners. 

Secondly, it should help to promote student safety. From drugs education and testing to advice on local partnerships that will help address supply, the guidance is full of practical advice. Good practice is already shared among those directly responsible for student wellbeing and safety but hasn’t always been given the broader and more senior focus it warrants.  

A more co-ordinated policy supports the complex partnership work needed to tackle issues of supply and exploitation. A culture of openness also supports better sharing of effective practice across the sector. What’s more, fewer accommodation teams should now feel that they are tackling some of these issues alone. 

Thirdly, it helps with the development of more workable student-facing policies in accommodation. It is very tempting to make drug use a special case in disciplinary processes, especially when there is a fear of seeming to condone drug use. The guidance advocates for the use of general behavioural policies, considering the impact of the behaviours when deciding how to respond. However, this should go hand-in-hand with general drugs education and a widespread understanding of both the health risks and the disciplinary consequences – and future career impacts – of drug use. 

Above all, this new guidance should ultimately lead to exactly what its title implies: Enabling student health and success. 

You can download the report from Universities UK’s website. 

Last year, Unite Students convened a cross-sector working group to develop supplementary guidance for student accommodation teams based on the main report. If you would like to contribute to the guidance, please drop me a line.

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