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Supporting students in accommodation over the winter break

15 December 2022

As the winter university break approaches, so does the inevitable narrative of students ‘returning home for Christmas’ – but what does that mean for those who remain in accommodation over the holiday? We explore some of the reasons why students stay in their accommodation over the festive season, best practice for inclusive operations and communications, and how Unite Students is supporting students over this period.


Home is where the heart is

The UK’s student population is increasingly diverse, representing countless nationalities, religious beliefs and personal circumstances – and so there are many different reasons why students may prefer to, or need to, remain in accommodation over the holiday period.

While religious and cultural festivals including Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are celebrated in late December, these may not be holidays observed by (for example) Muslim or Hindu students, and so they may see no reason to head home. Then there are international students, who make up 15.7% of the UK’s undergraduates and 39.1% of its postgraduates; they may not want to or be able to afford to travel back to their home country over the break – it may be more important to schedule a visit earlier in the year for a more culturally relevant holiday.

There are also students for whom their student accommodation is their only home, or those who have a difficult relationship or no contact with their family, including students who are estranged or care experienced. These students may choose to spend the holiday with friends or foster families, but implying that student accommodation isn’t a real home can be isolating to these students all year round.


An inclusive approach to the winter break

A majority of students do leave for the holiday, and it can be tempting to view those who stay as being ‘left behind’; indeed, this language can be othering or exclusive to those who remain in accommodation through choice or necessity.

However, award-winning independent charity the Unite Foundation – which was set up by Unite Students – is keen to stress that remaining in accommodation can be a positive, assertive decision. It’s important to avoid making generalisations in communications – whether that’s about how they may be feeling about it or the reasons why they may be in accommodation.

The Unite Foundation has recently published a practical guide for Higher Education staff on how to support care experienced and estranged students over the winter break, highlighting small changes that can make the experience more inclusive – such as keeping services open and signposting to suitable support services – and, helpfully, providing specific pointers for different departments within the university.

It also raises awareness of the This Is Us network, a vibrant, supportive community where students can connect, which has led to a number of students organising to come together over the festive period.


Supporting students in residence over the holidays

Unite Students’ buildings are open and staffed every day of the year, and Christmas Day is no exception. There is always a mixture of national and localised events taking place in our buildings throughout the break to ensure that there’s a community feel for students in residence. That includes quizzes, door decorating competitions, and Christmas movie nights.

But we know from experience that the broader winter period can be a difficult time for many students, running into January and February – so, to support the students who live with us this winter, Unite Students is running an expanded winter wellbeing campaign to build on the success of this year’s operation.

The first part of this two-pronged campaign will focus on the holiday season and providing support for those who need it, whether they’re away from their accommodation or staying in our buildings. We’re sending emails that acknowledge both possibilities equally, and signpost students to support pages on our student website and in our MyUnite app, and tailored winter resources on trusted student-facing websites like Student Space, the support and advice hub operated by student mental health charity Student Minds.

With more than 4 in 10 students considering cost of living to be the most important issue at the moment according to research by Savanta – as shared in our recent podcast episode on marketing to students – financial wellbeing will also be a centrepiece of our wellbeing campaign. We recently launched our partnership with Blackbullion, a financial wellbeing platform for students; this partnership allows all students who live with us to access its resources – including educational tools, financial wellbeing advice, and signposting to additional sources of funding – for free.

We’ll be sharing more information in January about how we’re supporting student wellbeing on the ground, both through the winter wellbeing campaign and the full rollout of our new student support framework, Support to Stay, which is designed to dovetail with university services. But until then, we’ll be doing all we can to make sure that the students who stay with us over the holiday feel supported and included over the coming weeks.


You can hear two former Unite Foundation students’ experiences of staying in residence over the winter break, and much more, in our Unite Foundation takeover of Accommodation Matters:

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