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How we prepared our new residents for university life

11 October 2023

Most students have now checked into their accommodation for the 2023/24 academic year. But what have we learned from this year’s new students?

Building on what we found in this year’s Applicant Index, we share qualitative and quantitative data to highlight what students are worried about, what they’re looking forward to and what community means to them in their accommodation.


A new start

Moving to university is a big step – one that can be as daunting as it is exciting. According to our 2023 Applicant Index report, 81% of this year’s university applicants felt like they wanted to belong at university, but half are anxious about fitting in at university.

Plenty of research shows that some applicants are not, or do not feel, prepared for independent living. Our 2017 Reality Check report highlighted the gap between expectations and reality, which led to Unite Students launching Leapskills, a programme powered by the Academy to help young people prepare for the transition to university life. This year’s Index research also highlighted some life skills that university applicants did not feel particularly confident about, such as registering for a GP, managing conflict with housemates and supporting a friend in distress.

Recent cost of living challenges have also led to heightened anxieties around managing finances at university. Finances were an area of relatively low confidence in the Applicant Index and, although scores had increased from 2022, suggesting applicants are more prepared than last year, those from less affluent backgrounds were more likely to say that financial issues were affecting their mental health. It’s become increasingly common for students to partially fund their experience through part-time work: HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) and Advance HE’s 2023 Student Academic Experience report showed that 55% of students undertake paid jobs at university to support themselves – an increase of 10 percentage points on 2022.

Then there are international students, who may need time to adapt to life in a new country and a different culture, as well as grappling with challenges like obtaining visas in advance of their move. Our May episode of Accommodation Matters explored some of the ways in which these obstacles can affect international students’ mental health.


‘New Residents’ virtual sessions

To prepare students in advance of their arrival, we share a comprehensive programme of pre-arrival communications, which provides plenty of bite-sized information prior to leaving home – but we also wanted to offer some additional touchpoints for students to share their concerns and ask any questions they had.

Over September, our support teams delivered six optional, hour-long virtual sessions. These sessions drew on content developed for Leapskills to explore some of the common situations that might crop up in student accommodation and to encourage students to think about how they might respond in those circumstances. It also included a question and answer session with colleagues from student support, communications and our Leapskills teams.

The questions asked reflected some anticipated themes, with the most common being financial concerns, sharing accommodation with others, meeting people and fitting in. International students made up 60% of attendees, and this was reflected in some more specific questions including visa processes and signing up for healthcare, and whether they could have appliances in their rooms, with mini washing machines being particularly of interest.

To measure the outcome of the sessions, participants were asked “How confident do you feel right now about the leap to living away from home?” on a scale of 0 (not at all confident) to 5 (very confident). The average confidence rating at the start was 3.3, but by the end of the session, this had increased to 4.1 – an impressive 24% increase.


What do students really want from their accommodation?

We also ran our annual pre-arrival survey to better understand students’ needs both at national level and in individual properties. At national level, the survey is useful for sense-checking whether we’re in tune with students, who are asked about what they need to thrive, what they’re worried about in advance of arrival, what they’re looking forward to and what community means to them.

Unsurprisingly, ‘managing finances’ was the thing that students were most worried about, with 55% citing this as one of their top three concerns. This is an increase on last year’s figure – but something that we’re prepared for, having exclusively partnered with financial education platform Blackbullion last year to provide financial support, signposting and resources, as well as co-producing a free downloadable guide for students and parents called ‘The climbing cost of living’.

Although ‘meeting new people’ was the most popular reason (27%) given for looking forward to university, it was also a source of anxiety (35%). It’s unclear whether this is a reflection of a generation of students that has had fewer opportunities to meet people during the pandemic, or a typical level of pre-university nerves.

That said, there was still a clear appetite for social interaction: social events and a supportive environment topped the list for ways in which we could support students to thrive, while support, feeling safe and friendship were the most common answers for ‘What does community mean to you?’.

Our Resident Ambassadors organise social events and offer peer support in our buildings – so it’s just as well that we’ve expanded the scheme for 2023/24, with more Ambassadors than ever before. Although our post-arrival student survey is still live, early findings show a correlation between higher satisfaction and a greater sense of welcome in properties that already have Resident Ambassadors in place.

We look forward to sharing more data over the course of the year to provide a national perspective on student needs – here’s to a great year ahead.

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