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Meet Will White – Unite Students’ new Higher Education Engagement Director

13 June 2024

Partnered with more than 60 universities across the UK, Unite Students prides itself on strong relationships with the Higher Education sector. So, we’re delighted to introduce Will White as our new Higher Education Engagement Director.

Here, he shares why he took the role after five years working as a Head of Operations, his priorities for 2024 and his experience of how Higher Education policy challenges play out for students on the ground.


Tell us about your new role as Higher Education Engagement Director.

The role is focused on listening to the challenges our partners are facing and finding ways that Unite Students can support their ambitions. So, I’ll be managing our senior stakeholder relationships, sourcing commercial opportunities, understanding Higher Education policy and what it means for the sector, as well as delivering our programme of hospitality, conferences and roundtable events.

What excites me is meeting new people across the UK and understanding in more detail how all the big national issues are  playing out for our universities at a local level. They’re all experiencing these issues in a slightly different way, so I’m looking forward to understanding what it means for them, what it could mean for Unite Students and how we can better work together and build amazing partnerships.


Why did you want to take the role?

I’ve always been deeply interested in the purpose of the Higher Education sector, educating the next generation and shaping the future. I’m also very interested in UK politics, for better or worse, and how some of the big policy and cultural debates play out in the world of student accommodation.

In my time as Head of Operations, I’ve enjoyed many different university relationships and helped Unite Students  to create a Home for Success for thousands of students through a time of unprecedented change. It’s a great opportunity to be able to blend that broad knowledge of operations and the student world with a passion for engagement and the amazing people who lead our sector.


Which issues and trends facing the Higher Education sector do you think have the greatest impact on PBSA, and how have you seen these issues play out in your time as Head of Operations for London?

The biggest things  affecting society are impacting students and our Higher Education partners too. Whether it’s the economic climate and student finance, the housing market and a lack of new supply, political instability, the climate emergency, purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) operators need to  understand how students and universities are affected by these issues, and how we can respond.

So, a huge part of my role is listening to our partners and the different sector bodies, then sharing that information within Unite Students. “Here’s what’s going on at a particular institution; here’s what they’re facing into.” We can then use that information to look at whether our offer needs to change, what might be coming down the track and what it means to better support an individual institution.

My time as Head of Operations has been one of incredible change. I started overseeing the London patch in mid-2021, in the shadow of the COVID pandemic. We had students that hadn’t sat exams and who hadn’t been able to attend university in person and my team were seeing first-hand how that period of isolation impacted them. But we also entered a period of huge growth in Higher Education and the number of students wanting to live in PBSA.

Since then we’ve seen the economic upheaval, wars, explosion of AI and so on. London is often at the heart of the cultural discussion and it’s a hotspot for some of those economic challenges and the housing supply/demand imbalance, so our residents and employees will have experienced those issues as much as anyone. Being the Head of Operations for London through that tumultuous time just doubled my enthusiasm for our purpose and left me with such a respect for the resilience of students that we’re supporting and the teams that serve them.


What’s one current issue in the Higher Education sector that you’re particularly passionate about?

International students. They have a hugely positive impact on British culture and the economy; they’re worth about £42 billion and they’re critical to stimulating the growth that we need, but they also enrich our cities and universities. It’s something I’m passionate about.


In your opinion, what makes a great university partnership?

A great university partnership requires great person-to-person interaction and strong communication at multiple levels. Honesty and transparency in all discussions lets both parties understand each other’s goals and motivations. It’s so simple but if that’s missing from the outset, any deal is not going to be mutually beneficial to a long-term partnership, which is what we strive for.

We’ve also got to be flexible to amend our offer wherever we can as university requirements shift. That’s why it’s so important we engage in great dialogue at all levels, to make sure we’re staying connected and delivering against each other’s expectations.


How do you think strong partnerships between universities and student accommodation providers benefit students?

Working closely together and having shared values is great for the student – they know there will be a consistent approach on, for example, student support. We’ve got a joined-up approach with our partners and we can stay aligned on messaging through those close relationships. That’s not only consistent with our own responsibilities, but the university can buy into it as well.

As much as possible, when you have a nominations agreement with a university, living in one of our properties should feel like an extension of the university’s accommodation and experience – whether it’s the events we run, the ResLife approach we take through our teams, the presence of our Resident Ambassadors or co-branding our buildings. Sometimes university teams train, develop and connect with our teams as if they were part of it, and that’s nice to see. It’s positive for students – it gives a clear message and a consistent approach to the overall care of each student.


Are there any examples of working with our university partners that you’re particularly proud of?

Last August, we ran a university workshop based on our Living Black at University research report, hosted by London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). We brought together about 50 delegates from providers across the sector – mostly London, but a few from outside the city as well – and focused on our operational response and how we would implement the recommendations.

It was just connecting people and planting a few questions, but trying to harness the sector’s enthusiasm for that work and share best practice that was so empowering, and we got to hear so many different perspectives from our university partners. That was a great example and something that we want to do much more of. I can see lots of opportunities for us to do that and build the operational response to our research.


What are your priorities for the rest of 2024?

Meeting partners the length and breadth of the UK! I know a lot of our network already, but there are some cities where I haven’t had much presence to date, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve had some fantastic meetings already in the few weeks since I’ve been in post, and I want to build on the great work done by my predecessor, Darren Ellis, and the wider Higher Education team.

There are so many ways to deepen our relationships, whether it’s through joint ventures to develop new halls, nominations agreements, partnering with them through our thought leadership or listening to initiatives that the university is engaged in and bringing those ideas back to Unite Students.

But sharing knowledge and the detailed understanding of what’s going on around the UK is priority number one for me. If we do that well, it will enhance our reputation.. If we’re listening and really responding, universities will see that and students will feel it.


Want more content from our Higher Education team? Read our interviews with Simon Jones (Group HE Director), Jenny Shaw (HE External Engagement Director) and Moray Notman (University Partner Commercial Director) on our website, or listen to our Higher Education podcast Accommodation Matters – available on all good podcast platforms.

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