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What has purpose built accommodation got to do with student welfare?

What has purpose built accommodation got to do with student welfare? Jenny Shaw on a new guide on the role of private accommodation
This article is more than 4 years old

Jenny Shaw is Higher Education External Engagement Director for Unite Students, and is seconded part-time to the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce

A new good practice guide on student wellbeing and mental health is being published. But this hardly seems like news. Student mental health has been high on the sector’s agenda for at least the last two years, and guidance is plentiful.

This one, however, is not published by a sector body or charity working in this area but by the real estate industry body, the British Property Federation. “Student Wellbeing in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation” has been developed by a partnership of private accommodation providers, sector bodies including Universities UK, the Department for Education and student representing bodies including NUS.

Over the two years of its development I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to articulate to sector colleagues just why this guide is needed. I have come to realise that private student accommodation – and possibly student accommodation in general – occupies an ill-defined position within the higher education landscape.

Beyond the practical need for somewhere to sleep, there seems to be no clear consensus about the role it plays in the student experience. Perhaps as a result of this, I’ve been told that accommodation providers have no role to play in student wellbeing. All we need to do is direct students to the right university services.

Flawed logic

This is perfectly logical, but there’s a flaw in the thinking. Wellbeing and mental health difficulties cannot be managed through logic alone. They rarely present in a straightforward way and indeed can hide in plain sight. They can involve risk, harm or disruption to others, which in a student community can be distressing for both students and staff. Most importantly of all, students are not pawns to be shuffled around. They have agency of their own and may not want to engage with services for a wide variety of reasons.

In short it’s messy, and the current lack of clarity about the role of private accommodation providers represents both a risk and a missed opportunity.

In a previous blog I argued that students, and especially first year students, are looking for trust relationships through which to find help and support. Via both staff and peers, student accommodation can act as a much needed engagement through to more formal services, and this neither a trivial nor a straightforward role. Beyond this, another blog on resilience shows the protective role that a supportive social environment can play in wellbeing.

So the new guide sets out how proactive and reactive approaches to student wellbeing can be achieved by private accommodation providers safely, professionally, ethically, legally, and in close partnership with a student’s university. And although it’s written as an advisory guide, its recommendations are already being consulted on for inclusion in the ANUK/Unipol Code of Standards.

Student demands

For universities and their students, I think this is a game changer. It brings clarity and consensus to the role that private accommodation providers play in student wellbeing, which in turn should reduce the complexity arising from differing assumptions. The legal section in particular combats data protection myths and sets out practical ways of data sharing based on student consent.

All of this frees up universities to be more demanding of their accommodation partners, and prompts both partners to be more proactive in seeking out better ways of working. For students living in private accommodation across the UK, I hope this will mean a seamless journey from a difficult situation into the right services within the context of a supportive community.

2 responses to “What has purpose built accommodation got to do with student welfare?

  1. It’s great that well-being is being put at the forefront of student accommodation and not just an afterthought (or sales gimmick) but will this guide look the impacts of financial hardship (partly caused by sky rocketing rents) has on students mental health?

  2. Hi JD, thanks for your comment. Transparency and responsibility over rents is certainly an important issue and one that needs to be taken seriously by accommodation providers. However this publication is there to serve a specific purpose which is to set out good practice guidance to help PBSA providers respond professionally to student wellbeing and mental health issues.

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