What are Residence Life programmes and why do they matter?

Travelling away from home to study at university is still an attractive option for students in the UK.

Three quarters of students are classified as ‘movers’ or students who study away from their parental/guardian home, with the average student choosing to travel 91 miles for their university education. But with the focus on cost of a university education and ‘Value for Money’, alongside concerns about student wellbeing and mental health – will this remain the modal form of higher education in the future?

The world is changing, the needs and expectations of young people and society are evolving and becoming ever more digital. Institutions are looking to be borderless education platforms with access from anywhere, plus the number of alternative offers to the traditional model are growing every year. So how can the conventional, predominantly residential offer continue to compete and attract prospective students to a particular place to study? In the future, what might emerge as the more expensive offer? Why should students still come and make that physical commitment to a university campus to study?

In response to student demand and increased competition, nationally and internationally, universities are looking at their offer more holistically – ensuring a structured academic curriculum alongside an informal education programme with a focus on developing skills, social events and a large range of sports activities.

Community matters

One huge draw for a university is the opportunity for a student to be a part of an education-enabled community. At the root of a university and hence academia, is the drive to exchange ideas and develop concepts with others who share the same passions and interests. Being in the same physical space is therefore very attractive, but this global community, often extended through virtual and social networks, doesn’t always reach across from faculty to student. Andy Pitchford discussed recently the need to develop stronger academic communities on campus and the benefits for both students and faculty in nurturing and building collaboration and communal identity.

But this community building is not just the responsibility or preserve of academic staff. Universities can also build communities outside the classroom, laboratory or studio and this is where the focus on informal education is particularly exciting and often lead through programmes called ‘Residence Life’.

The term Residence Life was developed in North America and is now becoming adopted by universities in the UK. Originally these programmes were designed to encourage students to meet, socialise and play sport, but in the last few years have become increasingly important for universities who see it as a way of supporting students, combating dropout rates, enhancing student safety and welfare, and promoting positive mental health. This extra-curricular programme has also matured in some US universities to create a more formal approach.

We’ve been doing this for years

Many institutions in the UK have been delivering Residence Life activities for a number of years (but not necessarily using this term), whereas others are newer to developing a more structured informal education offer. They have a variety of delivery models – in many universities, students can access these programmes through their students’ union, others have university resourced centres focused on wellbeing and/or sports. For universities structured in a collegiate way this structure can also work to support informal education and in some cases, universities work directly with accommodation providers on and off campus. A popular model is that of partnership with the university working with the students’ union and/or other parties – for example, the University of Sheffield student services team work with the students’ union and Sport Sheffield to deliver their Residence Life programme.

On first analysis, the increasing emphasis on Residence Life seems to be in response to a number of policy areas, primarily that of student welfare, health and wellbeing, Value for Money and changing student and societal expectations (see Figure 1). But ultimately, such a programme can be key to creating active and supportive learning communities.

Figure 1 – Initial model of forces associated with a university Residence Life programme

(Chipperfield, 2018)

A brief analysis of Residence Life programme materials on university websites show that in both the United States and the UK, institutions deliver a wide range of provision and cover a number of common topics. These ‘Res Life’ programmes can include and encourage sports activities, community building events such as BBQs, Quiz nights, visits off campus and/or skills activities covering areas such as positive mental health, managing stress, healthy living, communication skills or finance management.

As part of my research thesis at the University of Bath I am looking at Residence Life models and the drivers and rise of these over the last few years. I am working to gain a better understanding of the current landscape and reasons that universities are delivering programmes or adopting their approach. A survey is running to gather feedback and ideas on Residence Life programmes in universities in the UK and it would be great to get input from across the sector.

Selecting a university

Talking to students and parents, a university’s Residence Life programme and the informal education opportunities on offer are increasingly important when selecting which institutions to shortlist and/or choose. As we look to enrich the student experience and to education opportunities outside the lecture theatre or laboratory, one response is a formal Residence Curriculum, developed by Dr Kathleen G Kerr, Jim Tweedy and others at the University of Delaware, which suggests ten Essential Elements of a Curriculum Model for Learning Beyond the Classroom. This is a flexible approach which can be implemented by universities to deliver their informal education programmes through their current frameworks and structures.

And, despite the name, the programme does not have to be restricted to residential students. A number of universities are looking at ways of engaging commuter students, (students who travel from home daily for their studies) in their informal education programmes. For example, at Lancaster University “students are assigned to a college regardless of whether or not they are residential, in order to foster friendships and provide a sense of community”.

Importantly, it’s this community or ‘sense of belonging’ that is key to a positive experience and higher levels of student success. Building on Vincent Tinto’s work on student integration and newer concept of student persistence, alongside the HEA What Works? research project, ‘belonging’ and ‘engagement’ are key strands in retention and student persistence.

Questions to answer

This is still a developing area and there are questions to ask. For example, How can these programmes better support students with caring responsibilities or need extra guidance and skills? Does every moment of student experience need to be about learning? Where’s the fun?! How are/should these programmes and activities be funded – through inclusion in student rent, core budget, sponsorship? Should there be a formal curriculum for informal education? And where the students’ union takes a lead, what are the risks given the SU is usually separate from and autonomous from the university?

Some ask whether there will be a time in the future when universities are selected by students (and parents) purely on the ‘informal education’ curriculum offer, with the academic programme taken as a given. That time may well be now. If students are going to invest in a long period of study away from home, then they will be looking at the total ‘value add’ or the holistic education, support and learning opportunities available, rather than just the academic subject on offer. If so, Residence Life programmes could be a key differentiator for UK universities in the future.

One response to “What are Residence Life programmes and why do they matter?

  1. Finally read this Caroline after talking to you about it a while back! Interesting research area and I agree one for the future to combine residents and non-residents into social groupings that support each other through tertiary education without prejudice. Can’t wait to see your survey outcomes.

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