Delivering student success through student support in 23/24
University should be a time to grow and thrive for all students. But, for the tough times – whether it’s homesickness, the stress of exams or the uncertainty of a new environment exacerbating existing mental health issues – student support services can act as a safety net.
Becca Hayhurst, Head of Student Support at Unite Students, outlines our comprehensive approach to student support for 2023/24: what we are offering your students, how we got here, and how it’s been shaped with both students and university partners in mind – creating a genuine wraparound offer support that helps all students to succeed at university.
Not so long ago, university could be something of a sink or swim environment. If you didn’t find your feet, form friendships and get into your academic groove, you’d most likely drop out or fail – and that’s if university felt attainable in the first place.
Thankfully, things have moved on; there is more support available now, and it is acknowledged that the path to success isn’t always linear or smooth. There is also more acknowledgement of the fact that success itself is relative. Not everyone expects or strives for a First: for many, it is things like the social experience, a placement year, representing your university at a sport, or simply being the person you were destined to be that define or contribute towards ‘success’.
I moved into PBSA after 16 years of working in student services at a university, streamlining my focus from broad student services provision – such as accommodation, conduct, wellbeing, counselling, financial support and so on – down to just support and wellbeing, my main areas of interest. My background means that I have seen both the highs of student life and the lows. The lows can be catastrophic; student suicides are one of the most impactful events that can happen to students and staff, not to mention family and friends. But tragedies such as these are what drive me and my team to make a difference through the support that we provide.
At Unite Students, we truly value students’ experience with us and genuinely want to see them succeed. Their home should be a place of comfort and connection where they can really thrive, not just bricks and mortar – albeit some amazingly designed bricks and mortar with facilities and styling that I’d have loved as a student!
That said, we know that some of our students do struggle – be it with connecting, the transition to a new environment, their studies, their wellbeing or some of the experiences that go hand in hand with this new stage of their lives. They share this with us in their feedback, sometimes they even tell us before they arrive that they are worried about certain things, and importantly we have the opportunity and resources to help address these worries.
Support to Stay: A university-inspired framework
We felt that we could do more, in a more structured and holistic way that works for students first and foremost – but also for our university partners, for whom student mental health is a major concern, and even more urgent to address in light of new government requirements to adopt the University Mental Health Charter.
Our Higher Education partners work to clear frameworks – whether it is Support to Study, Fitness to Study or Fitness to Practise, the most effective approaches all have commonalities: levels of concern, clear points of escalation, clear processes, identified stakeholders, actions and outcomes and, crucially, a student-centred approach. Unfortunately private accommodation, a setting where these challenges most often play out, does not always feature in these.
As such ‘Support to Stay’, our reactive student support framework, was borne out of my very earliest discussions at Unite Students. We identified our own levels of concern, points of escalation and outcomes, and aligning these with those of our HE partners so that we would know when to connect, with whom, and which other stakeholders to involve, in order to work together to support a student to succeed.
Sometimes this may involve a pause, or even withdrawal, from study and a release from contract – something which is now easier to navigate within our processes – because staying in their accommodation isn’t always the best thing for a student. Success for some might actually be acknowledging that they need to take a break and put their wellbeing before their studies, but making sure that the door is open for a future return – and sometimes that involves a helping hand from us as well.
We introduced a Reasonable Adjustments Committee, now known as the Support to Stay Committee, to help us support students who required adjustments to accommodate their needs, including those returning to us after a break in studies. Again, this forms part of our framework and involves partnership working to find appropriate and workable solutions to support a student’s stay with us.
It’s also important to mention that we are also working with other departments across Unite Students, including our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, Estates and Health & Safety teams, to deliver solutions that support students to continue their stay with us, whatever their university journey throws at them.
Our new Student Assistance Programme
Over the last year we have looked at student feedback, listened to our Resident Ambassadors and staff, and engaged with our University partners, to ensure we continue to evolve our offering. We have introduced training, resources and processes that better meet the needs of our Student Experience teams, including training modules through our Academy that cover safeguarding, disability awareness, disclosures of sexual violence, and completing a welfare check.
Most recently, we have made arrangements to introduce a Student Assistance Programme to enhance our support provision for this academic year. This is a 24/7 student wellbeing helpline, which students can call for anything – whether it’s about relationships, finances, or anything else – but, most importantly for us, it connects a student with a clinical professional in their moment of need.
This also gives our employees an extra pillar of support when they are helping students in crisis, as we know just how hard that can be. Our Emergency Contact Centre is also important stakeholders in this process; for example, prompting a welfare check whilst the student remains on the call with the helpline.
We have also included digital therapy in our Student Assistance Programme, to help bridge the gap whilst students are waiting for face-to-face therapy through the university or NHS. Whilst these are still our primary places to signpost, we are now better equipped to respond to crises and able to offer proactive tools and resources to support students whilst they navigate those services.
The importance of proactive support
I am a firm believer in taking positive steps to reduce risks rather than just being responsive. Proactive measures are effective for improving and maintaining good mental health and wellbeing and, coupled with our trained employees, we can build a community of care in which challenges to wellbeing are reduced. Where these challenges do occur, they can be identified and responded to at the earliest opportunity to deliver the best possible student experience.
Whilst we all use this term in the sector, and some of our employees even have it in their title, we do acknowledge that there isn’t one ‘student experience’ that fits all, nor one single ‘student journey’. We know that those experiences and that journey are personal and nuanced, but we also recognise that there were some key ingredients to enhancing it. Whilst our framework itself is focused on interventions and responding to incidents or concerns, the proactive elements of Student Support are just important – as these are the elements that benefit all students.
Our signposting and resources, the physical environment and being responsive to our students’ needs is important, but I felt that the missing piece of our particular puzzle was our long-running Resident Ambassador programme. It’s a fantastic resource, but under-utilised and so important to creating a sense of community and belonging in our properties. No student should feel lonely if we can help it.
So we brought the programme under our Student Support remit, albeit delivered through our local teams, who provide our Ambassadors with the day-to-day support they need. This gives it a real sense of structure and gives the students the right tools for the job as well as – crucially – an earlier arrival and training, so that they can set the right tone with their fellow students from the get-go. I am so excited to see what they deliver, along with our fantastic frontline Student Experience teams, whose passion and enthusiasm make everything happen on the ground in our buildings.
Bring on the 2023-24 academic year!
You can read about Support to Stay in more detail here and you can read our interview with Becca here. An interview with first-year student Izzy Pemberton, talking about her experience of being a Resident Ambassador in Manchester during the 22/23 year, is available here.