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Interview: The importance of university partnerships at Unite Students

10 October 2023

Partnered with more than 60 universities across England, Scotland and Wales, Unite Students is committed to strong, mutually beneficial university relationships.

We spoke to Simon Jones, University Partnerships Director at Unite Students, about what he’s learned from his time overseeing our national operations, the importance of understanding the student lifecycle, and the key to great university relationships.

 

Q: You spent more than a decade working in operations leadership at Unite Students – first as Operations Director for the North East and Scotland, then as National Operations Director. But what was it that drew you to Unite Students initially?

I’d been at my old company for a long time and wanted to change sector – I wanted to work for a market leader, so Unite Students was very attractive. It was the blend of operations growth through property development, relationship management and a very strong bias towards university relationships which appealed to me, and it was a young, growing and maturing business where I felt I could make a difference.

 

What were some of your principles for delivering great operations in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA)?

The first thing is always to look at things from the student perspective; putting ourselves in their shoes and thinking about what’s going on for them, these young people transitioning from home and all the comforts that often come with home – as well as those young people who don’t have that comfort. It’s being aware of this transition to more independent living and all the excitement, but also trepidation, that comes with that.

We also need to be in tune with the ebb and flow of student life across the years and different terms. So, at first they’re getting to know their way around the city and where to find things on campus, learning how to do new things and meeting new people – there’s lots of excitement and it’s often a great time. But then they have to study, they might have financial problems, they might fall out of love or form friendships and then lose them; then they’re off for Christmas, you get that warmth of being at home, and then you have to dislocate yourself again.

Finally, we need to be demonstrating the best in everything – the best experience, best buildings, best people, and the best partners to our universities.

 

Your interest in the student experience and the student lifecycle – is that inspired by your own experience of university?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a little longer in the tooth now, but every year I meet up with my friends from university. There are six of us, and those are the friendships I made 38 years ago in the first week at the University of York.

I still remember being dropped off at university by my dad, and the experience I had settling in and trying to find out where things were. I was the first to arrive in my flat, which had 12 rooms, and over the next three days other people started arriving, two of whom are in that group of friends I still see. I can still remember the smell of the flat and what I was wearing when I arrived – a Wales rugby shirt. I remember the impact of that experience.

Now my daughter is 15 and she’s thinking about university and where she’d like to study, so I’m also thinking about how things will be for my daughter when she lives in accommodation in three years’ time.

 

What are some of the main changes that you saw in your time in operations?

People are much more connected. We now have the power of reviews, peer recommendations, social media and the ability to communicate so quickly about great things – and not so great things. I think student expectations have risen significantly, probably over the last 10 years.

Students are now customers of higher education, and while repayment of student loans happens post-qualification, they still feel that they are buying their education. They want to make sure they get value for money across everything they experience: tuition; campus experience; accommodation. We have to be so much better every year as expectations rise, we have to continue to meet those rising expectations, with quality in everything we do, empathy and understanding what support is needed.

 

You then worked in our strategy office from 2018 to 2022. What projects did you work on, and what did you learn in that time?

It was very much focused on growth. We initially expected to grow over a longer period of time, but then the opportunity to acquire Liberty Living came up – they were the third largest provider in the market, and we were the largest. I worked on various aspects of the project including integration, portfolio assessment, the broad business case and worked through the competition issues, ultimately gaining clearance from  the Competition and Markets Authority. I then led Liberty during the integration period. It was a fabulous experience, but very challenging; there was lots to learn very quickly. Through the process, I really tried to keep people at the heart of the thinking.

After two years working on the Liberty project, I was heavily involved in our pilot Build to Rent scheme in Stratford, East London – that was really exciting. It involved looking at how we enter that market and learning more about it. It’s a different market, with a different customer base of young professionals. We’ve now mobilised that asset and it’s running really well.

We also did a lot of work thinking about how we could become more focused on meeting students’ needs. We ran a series of initiatives, starting with the class of 2021, where through capturing more data, we could understand our customers better and think about their specific needs property by property and empower the local teams to tailor the student experience accordingly.

 

What were some of the main learnings you took away from the Liberty Living acquisition?

Just like Unite Students, Liberty Living was a very well-respected PBSA brand with strong university partnerships and a strong focus on student experience and doing the right thing. There were some contrasts – Liberty had a more localised feel and kept things simpler, but Unite had a more significant support infrastructure, for example having a contact centre.

There were lots of things that were complementary. Generally, Liberty’s buildings were on the other side of the towns and cities that we were already based in, so the geography was complementary; only a handful of university relationships overlapped between the two organisations, so we were able to build new university partnerships as a result.

 

The acquisition happened shortly before lockdown – how did you go about building new university relationships at this challenging time?

Liberty Living were trusted partners of the universities they worked with, with a number of nominations agreements in place. So, the universities were nervous at first – they didn’t know us and were comfortable in their existing relationships. There was a fear that things would change or deteriorate. We worked very hard to build those new relationships and build that trust.

Continuity of the city teams was really important. We did have some attrition, which happens with acquisitions. But we looked to keep as many people as possible to support those relationships and demonstrate Unite’s great practice.

Our partnership-first approach was challenged during Covid. We were trying to form new relationships through virtual meetings which, while we got used to, is never the way you would choose to make your first engagement with a new university partner. But we offered accommodation refunds during the pandemic, which helped to support students at a really challenging and uncertain time, and that absolutely stood out for all our university partners. It was a sector-leading move that gave us an opportunity to demonstrate how we do the right thing very quickly in transitional periods, and set the tone for those universities on how we work.

 

In 2022, you became University Partnerships Director. What has your previous experience in the organisation taught you about the importance of university partnerships?

In the 16 years since I’ve joined Unite Students, I’ve seen many years of hard work go into our approach of establishing ourselves as part of the sector. We pride ourselves on that. Our success is so interdependent with the success of the universities we are partnered with and the cities in which we operate.

Relationships are fundamental to that. We’re a people business, and that human touch is important; our city teams understand young people. But then there are also the relationships we have with university partners at all levels, from the university security teams and accommodation office right through to our CEO meeting with university vice chancellors.

Those relationships are about sharing what’s going on in the city and about understanding nuances in situations. Those can be with the cohort of students, who look different every year, or sometimes it’s facing into challenges within the city – that might be security, it might be building works. There’s always so much happening. And with a good relationship you’ll interact earlier, as opposed to waiting until things escalate.

Even if we don’t have a commercial partnership with a university, we should still have a great relationship with them. Whoever lives with us, whichever university they come from, it’s the same purpose: providing students with a home for success.

Then, key for me is building trust. That’s about empathy, understanding, being a great listener, really understanding things from a partner’s perspective and recognising where we bring value. Where there are hand-offs, but also where we don’t want to step on each other’s toes. Developing that deep understanding of their plans, their strategy, their challenges and where we can support them. Trust is something that’s easily lost, difficult to gain and very difficult to regain. So we must do everything we can to protect that.

With those two things – human relationships and trust in those relationships – we can usually solve any challenge, whatever that might be.

 

Looking forward, are there any sector trends or challenges you’re particularly interested in from an accommodation perspective?

There are a few accommodation challenges facing the sector where we believe we can add value and support with solutions. One is meeting Net Zero targets. Unite Students’ target is 2030, and for universities those targets vary from 2030 to 2038 – so finding the technical solutions, and then the capital to invest into delivering on those sustainability goals, is a major challenge.

Then there’s the condition of existing estates across the sector – there are lots of buildings that need quite significant work. But it’s not only about providing high-quality accommodation, irrespective of its age, but also to deliver an increased volume of accommodation because there’s an increasing demand. HMO (Houses of Multiple Occupancy) buildings are dropping out of supply at a time where we’ve got growing student numbers, particularly internationals.

That’s definitely a trend – the diversification of international student markets – and one that’s really interesting. There are very different accommodation needs for students from emerging markets, such as Nigeria and India, compared to the more established needs of Chinese students.

So, there are a number of challenges that universities are facing into. They’ve also got really significant capital investment programmes into campuses and teaching and research facilities. We can play our part to help them with funding delivery of new accommodation, efficiency in operations and an excellent student experience through our offerings. It’s about not only empathising with these challenges, but then also showing where our solutions can help.

Finally, there’s one more thing around the accommodation product. Right now we’re all working through the cost of living challenge, so affordability is really, really important. It’s so acute because of high interest rates, mortgage costs and inflation. Things should settle down. But longer term, with the emerging markets for international students, it’s interesting looking at the range of products that should be offered. Affordable accommodation with shared bathrooms and twin rooms is becoming increasingly important.

Will that endure once we get through the cost of living crisis, or will we return to most students preferring an en-suite bedroom? There’s something to watch there, when we’re thinking about product innovation and how we can deliver the right accommodation for the different student segments.

Want to know more about how Unite Students works with universities and the wider Higher Education sector? Read our interviews with Jenny Shaw (Higher Education External Engagement Director) and Moray Notman (University Partnerships Commercial Director) now.

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