Student accommodation is a pivotal, yet unique, strand of the university experience for many.
Despite efforts to embed diversity across all areas of campus life however, student residences may be the places where this is most lacking – and the desire for students to live with people that they share characteristics with makes this difficult for universities to change.
In his influential report of 1963, Lord Robbins defined two essential needs for a student over the course of their university career. One of these needs, he suggested, is “a room of his own, however modest.” While most of us would not describe today’s availability of studio apartments and wellness spas (yes, really) as “modest”, the sentiment does remain. Accommodation is an essential, and ideally complementary, counterpart to academic life.
It is the relationship between accommodation and other areas of the university experience that will form the crux of my article. Multiple facets, from the commercialisation of HE to the treatment of student residences within the sector, may determine how successful accommodation can be as a catalyst for demographic mixing.
The empowerment of choice
Since the late 1990s and alongside the growing financial investment of the 18 year old undergrad, students have been viewed by the government as “consumers”. Ex-universities minister Michelle Donelan even went as far as to request that drop-out and employment rates be published on university marketing materials – with the implication that a student might now choose an institution in the same way they might choose a credit card provider.
Accommodation has not been exempt from the financial burdens placed on the student. In fact, average rents have risen by 61% since 2011/12 and the trajectory continues at a rate faster than inflation.
Why then, should a student not have the choice to determine who they share their home with? There is evidence that students will naturally gravitate towards those with whom they perceive to share identity characteristics.
One humorous anecdote tells of a group of international students who, when placed in different residences across the campus of an anonymous university, had arranged room swaps in order to become neighbours by the end of their first term.
Their assumed rationale is perfectly understandable. Being around peers with whom they can relate and share elements of their culture with, is a great reassurance in what is generally a daunting and emotional transition.
The counter argument is just as strong. Students no longer come to university to get their degree certificate and venture into the big wide world. They expect to be equipped with the skills that allow them to flourish there. This includes communication, acceptance, and understanding. My own conversations with colleagues for example, determined that the student flat should represent a “snapshot” of the diversity that graduates will encounter in the workplace.
Despite this, the commercial element of accommodation may itself provide a hindrance to this imagined ideal. As long as halls and rooms continue to be priced differently, they will also continue to attract students with similar socioeconomic characteristics, for example. This is something already alluded to by HEPI.
The unique nature of accommodation
The way we think about student accommodation as a sector may also determine its place within the diversity ambitions of universities. The private PBSA (purpose-built student accommodation) sector, which now holds a majority market share in the UK, is largely linked to the commercialisation of HE and has changed the dynamic of student living.
One discussion suggested that accommodation is viewed “as a hotel […] we don’t perceive it as somewhere where someone lives.” This appears to ring true in some cases. Regulatory codes define security and fire safety, but neglect the social lived experience. The semantics of “accommodation” itself seem to refer to something temporary, a form of shelter. This is a stark contrast to universities across the pond, where residences are defined by membership to an established community in the form of fraternity and sorority houses.
Its distinct nature in the university experience also means it is tempting to view it as a distinct area of student life. However, recent findings make a strong case for the opposite. The perceptions we sometimes hold around accommodation must change.
Take the campus novel, for example. “Digs” usually consist of a box room with a small sink overlooking the quaint streets of Oxford – the setting in which authors like Storey and Amis narrate their protagonists. The residential element remains distinct from academia (characters seem to do a lot more drinking and seducing than teaching and studying).
Today however, the emphasis on student wellbeing and belonging reverses this entirely. We need to be thinking about accommodation as part of the holistic university experience. It is both pivotal and influential.
Or take Unite’s research around the experience of Black students in accommodation. They found that a staggering quarter of Black students did not feel a sense of belonging in their residences. Coupled with Wonkhe’s own findings where only 34% of students who feel they do not belong agree they feel confident about their academic skills, we may infer that students who do not feel they belong are less likely to have confidence in their academic abilities.
We also know that between 2013/14 and 2017/18 (the most recent iteration of this analysis), Black students were less likely to continue to their second year of study. Here, we find a narrative that may represent the experiences of some of our students. If a student does not feel they belong primarily in their accommodation setting, the other facets of academic life may quickly unravel. This is completely speculative, but possible nonetheless.
Interestingly, Wonkhe found that of those who did not feel they belong at university, 30% agreed that “meeting new people of a similar background to me” would help.
Direct intervention or gentle influencing
There is an element of this discussion that would be foolish to ignore. To have a completely diverse makeup of students in an accommodation block necessitates the diversity of the student body to exist in the first place – something the sector needs to work harder on.
Despite this, some universities are already devising measures that influence their allocation processes. As the student body (hopefully) diversifies in terms of personal characteristics, these may become commonplace.
Bedford, for example, implied they were using a “specialised commercial algorithm” in 2018. This partnered applicants according to lifestyle and personality, irrespective of demographic characteristics. This means an early bird can object to living with a night owl. It makes sense, right?
And looking at this internationally, Yale University is currently piloting a Roommate Matching Feature. This allows applicants to pick an ideal housemate in the way they might find a partner on a dating app. Again, irrespective of demographic traits.
While the aims of these unique methods are wholly positive, and promote similarity on the ground of personality rather than demography, the sentiment remains. The pull of the desire to live with people who are similar, is strong.
The people make the place
Reflecting on my own university accommodation experience (including the slugs residing rent-free in my second year kitchen), living with people I considered “similar” to me would have really helped. As a first-generation student from the East Midlands, I sometimes felt isolated from the experiences and backgrounds of those around me.
Diversity is such a fundamental agenda of all universities. The desire to live with people of shared characteristics may however hinder the ambition for this to cascade across all areas of the student experience.
Accommodation is hugely important. It is the place where students learn to belong, build relationships, and eventually call “home”. A preference for similarity with appropriate motivations, and certainly not as an antagonist to diversity, may be a positive thing.