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Supporting the return to university

8 June 2020

It’s vital we help students stay safe and find a sense of community when they return to university.

There’s no getting away from it, COVID-19 has affected all our lives. And all our lives are different as a result.

And yet, despite everything that has happened over the last few months, students still want to come to university to study and socialise.

Our new research, launched today, found that nine in ten (89%) student and applicants are keen to get on campus once it is safe to do so, and eight in ten (79%) say that living in university accommodation and being on campus is as important a part of their experience as tutorials. What’s more, the vast majority (86%) trust their university to provide the necessary safety measures that will help them to do this.

As I write, many of us are still conducting our private and working lives from the safety of our own home. Their current home is seen by most parents as a safe place for students to live, but they rated purpose-built student accommodation (university or private halls) as the next safest, attracting around three times the votes of shared houses or living alone.

Hygiene, cleanliness and social distancing are top considerations for both students and parents, with each of these polling at 90% or over. This is relatively straightforward to deliver through a good cleanliness regime, provision of the right equipment and clear standards.

The social experience is important to students too, with 79% of students concerned about how this could be disrupted. In our insight report last year, we showed the link between loneliness and poor wellbeing among students. Following on from the isolation of lockdown, it’s going to be vital that we find ways to help students feel a sense of community and create social directions, even while following social distancing guidelines.

This is all the more important given students’ and parents’ overwhelming concerns about mental health. Some 65% of students and 73% of parents are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, and they worry more about this than any physical health impact. Those of us working with students have been preparing for a cohort with additional welfare needs, but perhaps we haven’t realised how much of a worry this is to students themselves.

All these findings have been eye-opening and valuable as we prepare a safe and secure environment for students in the coming academic year, and one that balances physical and emotional needs within the context of home.

Unite Students’ approach to 2020-21 covers the following:

  • High professional standards of safety and cleanliness, using approved materials and products, building on our British Safety Council 5-star rating
  • Compliant social distancing with clear guidance and markers around the building and a ‘home charter’ that encourages respect and safety
  • A positive welcome experience with flexibility over start dates, engaging pre-arrival content, a phased, digitally enabled and socially distanced check-in and a peer-to-peer welcome from our Student Ambassadors
  • A feeling of home with digital tools to support the formation of ‘households’ and social groups
  • Commitment to student wellbeing where trained frontline staff supported by experts and a 24/7 contact centre operate within a professional student services framework, in partnership with your own student services team

Over the coming weeks we look forward to sharing our detailed plans with university partners, and of course with students themselves. We would like to consult with partners about our plans, and how they can help reassure your students and keep them safe. We would also welcome the opportunity to discuss areas of uncertainty, where national guidance is still to emerge. In the meantime, we have produced this factsheet, containing some of the key statistics from the data, as well as more headlines of Unite’s response to the pandemic so far…

Next year is going to be very different from those that have gone before, but by addressing student needs and concerns head on, we can give them the confidence to do what they want to do – come to university.