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Support to Stay: Improving our student support framework

1 August 2023

Over the last year, Unite Students has trialled Support to Stay – an innovative student support framework designed to align with university processes. Here, we delve into what Support to Stay is, what came out of the trial phase, and what it means for the full Support to Stay roll-out in the 2023/24 academic year.

University is a wonderful time for so many – but it’s not without its challenges. Every student will have some experience of sadness, worry or stress during their studies, and these issues can snowball into more serious challenges. This year’s HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) Student Academic Experience Survey found that 28% of students considered dropping out, with mental health being the most cited reason for this.

Additionally, a sizeable population of the student population already has a mental health condition prior to arriving at university: our 2023 Applicant Index research has suggested that about 19%, or about one in five, of this year’s new students has a mental health condition; a similar proportion to last year’s data.

 

Student support in accommodation

It’s perhaps no surprise that student accommodation is the backdrop against which mental health struggles can manifest and, in the eight years since Unite Students became the first accommodation provider to set up a student welfare service, it has become a standard expectation that accommodation providers should play their part in supporting student wellbeing. That includes signposting to support services, logging concerns, and collaborating with universities where concerns exist, as well as creating an environment in which students feel they belong and can approach team members when they need help.

Over the years, we have regularly assessed our student support provision and how it serves the students who live with us. Importantly, we recognised that we could better support students with more complex wellbeing needs through a more structured, consistent approach that allowed us to work more closely with universities and that mirrored university ‘Support to Study’ or ‘Fitness to Study’ policies – and so Support to Stay was created.

 

How does Support to Stay work?

Providing a structure for our reactive student support work, the Support to Stay framework outlines three gradated categories of concern for a student’s wellbeing – from ‘initial concern’ to ‘critical concern’ – and lays out the type of interventions appropriate at each level of concern.

For example, the first level of concern could involve a student being involved in disputes with their flatmates, behaving in an antisocial way linked with problem drinking, or showing signs of low moods: the concern could be logged due to the student asking for help, an incident occurring, or concerns raised or observed by a third party. These concerns could be dealt with by our frontline teams, who might respond by carrying out a welfare check, undertaking mediation with those living in the flat, or facilitating a room move.

Students are encouraged to give informed consent for us to share concerns with the university at the earliest opportunity, in order to provide a more joined-up approach to support their situation. Our data-sharing agreements with university partners make this easier, and the Support to Stay model works with points of escalation from either the university or Unite Students.

For students, this provides consistency and allows the right interventions to take place more quickly than they might previously have done. For employees, it provides clarity as to which cases can be dealt with by the frontline team, and which ones require escalation to our regional student support team, who have the specialist training and expertise needed in a case where there are serious concerns. It also supports professional communication with the student’s university, enabling a seamless referrals to appropriate support and ongoing collaborative case management.

Crucially, success within the model may not always mean supporting a student to remain in accommodation. Where there are concerns of such severity that a student may prove a risk to themselves, other students or our employees, the framework is designed to work in tandem with university Support/Fitness to Study processes. Working together, a successful outcome might involve helping a student to safely transition out of their accommodation without financial penalty to take a break from their study, with the option to return when appropriate.

 

Trialling Support to Stay

Support to Stay was trialled in the 2022/23 academic year, allowing our student support team to explore how it worked in practice.

To assess how successful the trial had been, over the summer term, the team have reviewed a number of case studies across different levels of concern and with different outcomes, as well as consulting with some university partners and looking at qualitative student feedback – in particular, feedback about how students felt about the community within their accommodation One example of a case study in which the framework had safely supported the student to remain in accommodation is available below:

Student A had a complex set of needs, including unmanaged seizures, mental health concerns and suicidal ideology, and was considered high-risk during their tenancy with us in the 2021/22 academic year. It was unclear whether they could safely live in our accommodation in 2022/23.

Using the Support to Stay framework, we worked with the student’s university and joined up our approach with their ‘support to study’ framework. Working together, we set out agreed conditions for the student to live in our accommodation, including engaging with student support teams, a community mental health team and their GP.

To date, there have been no further concerns raised, and the student remains in accommodation due to the joined-up approaches under the model.

Overall, the team concluded that the framework was the right structure for delivering reactive support, and had supported students to safely remain in accommodation and continue their studies where they would likely not have done otherwise. Our General Managers have reported that communication with university partners in this area has been more efficient under the model, and that it’s been easier to escalate concerns about students.

However, one key finding was that our proactive support offer programme for all students – including student community events and digital campaigns to signpost to Student Minds’ online resources – could be taken up a level, thereby reducing the need for some of our reactive work.

 

Supporting more students to stay in accommodation

A major way in which we’re responding to this finding is to expand our Resident Ambassador programme and ensure greater consistency across all 23 of the cities in which we operate. Resident Ambassadors have provided important peer support to students and led on social events within our buildings since 2016, and are paid at above the National Living Wage for their time. Our recent interview with Izzy Pemberton, one of our Manchester-based Resident Ambassadors, offers a flavour of what it means to be a Resident Ambassador and how they can enrich the community in which they live through running events and befriending other students.

To elevate the Resident Ambassador programme for the 2023/24 academic year, we’ve brought forward our recruitment and training timeline for Ambassadors – recruiting them at the tail-end of this year so they’re already in position by the time students arrive in September and can help new arrivals to adjust to university life. The national training programme for Ambassadors has also been bolstered to include virtual training sessions and access to e-learning resources, following consultation with last year’s Ambassadors. And, to ensure everyone feels supported in our buildings, we’re providing training to Ambassadors on how to run inclusive events and monitoring the diversity of our Resident Ambassadors.

Inclusion is a thread that runs through a number of ways in which we’re enhancing the student experience for 2023/24. Our improved booking process means we have captured, and can respond to, students’ accessibility needs much earlier. This includes accessibility needs linked to neurodivergence, following the publication of our ‘Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students’ report in March. We have also developed a Community Living Agreement which is student-led and focuses on creating inclusive and respectful communities, working with our interns from the 10,000 Black Interns project.

Additionally, following a successful trial in Newcastle last year, we are this year rolling out cultural service guides for each of the 23 cities in which we operate: that is, guides which signpost students to relevant services such as Black hairdressers and ethnic supermarkets in their university city. The guides, put together by interns working at Unite Students through the 10,000 Black Interns scheme, are intended to support Black students to acclimatise to living in a new city and were created as a result of our work with the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University.

 

Improving Support to Stay for 2023/24

On top of these improvements to our proactive support approach, we’ve made some further adjustments to the core Support to Stay framework. For example, our student support team are currently working with our university partners to review data sharing agreements and agree how to manage risk to ensure that a student has the appropriate level of support through our joined-up approach.

Maintaining clear communication on cases has been another priority. Regular case conferences, both internally and with university partners, will help to keep all parties joined up on particularly challenging situations. We’re also creating a quick reference guide for our frontline teams on how to respond to cases, in addition to having rolled out an improved suite of student support training modules this summer, powered by the Academy – our commitment to employee development. These modules include training on safeguarding, disability awareness, disclosures of sexual violence, and completing a welfare check.

In October 2022, Universities UK published a recommendation that universities make it mandatory for students to name a ‘trusted contact’ at registration so that, in the event of serious concerns about a student’s mental health or safety, the trusted contact could be contacted to share these concerns. On the back of this guidance, our 2024/25 bookers will be able to name a trusted contact during the booking process – meaning that we can involve the trusted contact in conversations where appropriate.

Student safety is the most important consideration for any university or accommodation provider, and mental health is a vital aspect of that. Through the more joined-up approach pioneered by Support to Stay, we hope that more students can be supported during their time at university and, consequently, enjoy a successful and fulfilling university experience.

Learn more about the background of Support to Stay in our interview with Becca Hayhurst, Head of Student Support at Unite Students.

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