Learning from diversity: managing student integration in accommodation

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Data released today by Unite Students reveals that university applicants are keen to live with students from other nationalities and cultures – but not necessarily in the same flat.

An independent survey of 8,500 applicants and students, conducted on behalf of Unite, highlighted that around three-fifths of applicants (61%) want to live with students from a range of cultures and nationalities, yet less than a third (30%) want this in their flat.

On the other hand, both applicants and undergraduates rank ‘living with a wide range of cultures and nationalities’ as the factor they rated of least concern in terms of living with other students. Just 9% of respondents are concerned about this, and are far more worried about living with people who have different interests (32%). Given these seeming contradictory views, this is an area that requires more exploration and context to understand what this might mean, especially for those who manage student accommodation.

Benefits of diversity

There is a significant body of research in the US that statistically demonstrates the educational benefits to getting to know other students from different backgrounds. This has been linked with the development of intellectual skills, general education and personal/social development (Hu and Kuh, 2003), self-rated aspirations for postgraduate education (Gurin et al., 2002) and the development of academic self-concept (Chang, 2001). In all of these studies, the educational benefits are linked in one way or another to the notion of ‘difference’ as a resource for learning.

However these benefits don’t come from just living and studying alongside students from different backgrounds. They come from structured interactions, opportunities to share culture, working together on joint projects. The studies found that simply mixing up students from different backgrounds in the classroom or living space doesn’t produce these benefits, and indeed can cause tensions.

Residential Life

However those who manage student accommodation, both universities and private providers such as Unite Students, can help students realise the potential benefits of the diversity around them.

The research also revealed applicants have a strong desire for opportunities to mix with other students where they live. Over three quarters expressed the desire for social activities in their accommodation. About half also wanted academic-related events and practical workshops, though in practice only a minority of students had these provided in their living space.

Such structured opportunities to mix with other students outside their flat and/or social circle can help students get to know others from different backgrounds, especially where this is an explicit objective of those who organise the events.

Conclusion

On the surface the data appears to be contradictory. However it can be interpreted as an expression of applicants’ desire to learn from other cultures, while at the same time not always being confident enough to live with others who are very different from themselves, especially during a time of profound transition.

Those who manage student accommodation are in a position to see the whole student, and to play a formative role in the wider learning that comes from living in a student community. These findings, taken alongside the research from the US cited above, suggest that an investment in a carefully planned social programme could pay significant dividends in meeting many of the learning goals that both students and their universities value.

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