All students deserve to experience the full benefits of university life

24 Mar 2021
By Richard Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Unite Students
With many students still in the dark about when they might return to campus, Unite Students CEO Richard Smith shares his thoughts on the importance of a full university experience for students, drawing on the findings of our recent student survey.

Some university students are understandably finding this academic year a challenge. This is backed by insight from our recent survey of 2,000 UK students.

From this, we know students’ two biggest struggles as a result of Covid-19 have been the lack of face-to-face teaching, which is wrapped up with missing the social interaction of being on campus; closely followed by their mental health and wellbeing.

The first is a symptom of lockdown with the necessary public health measures in place to safeguard everyone. The second – mental health and wellbeing - is particularly concerning.

I know first-hand the impact mental health challenges can have on everyday life. I can therefore understand why students would benefit from returning to university campuses to continue their studies and see their peers when safe to do so. 

Significantly, almost half (47%) of students surveyed said they would welcome an extension to the third term to make up for time they’ve spent away from campuses this year. They understandably want to experience university life in full. Of course, we must not forget university staff in this equation, as surveys also show their mental health has suffered during the pandemic.

In addition, the survey found that a significant number of students, 84%, believe being able to engage in university life would positively benefit their mental health. Four in every five students would like a return to campus as soon as safely possible. 

The Prime Minister has partly delivered on this in outlining his ‘roadmap’, depending on which type of degree course students are studying. Others will have to wait until the Easter holidays for further clarity. Of course, Government guidance does not prevent students from returning to their accommodation – although they’ve been urged not to go back and forth, so as to minimise the risk of Covid transmission.

In contrast, school pupils in England started to return to classrooms from 8 March. 

Three-quarters of university students agree that living in their accommodation at university and being on campus is as important a part of their university experience as lectures and tutorials. In addition, almost two in three students have told us they are likely to return to their student accommodation after Easter.

Of course, tens of thousands of students have remained living in student accommodation during the pandemic and the numbers are increasing all the time. However, not all courses have made a return to face-to-face learning. There remains no clarity over the return to campuses for some students, particularly those studying non-practical subjects, despite the Government’s ‘remain at home’ rule being due to be lifted from 29 March.

The question is: How are we going to support all university students, not just those studying practical subjects, in their third term to ensure they get the rich university experience they deserve?  This should be the priority.

Purpose-built student accommodation providers were highlighted as the most affordable type of student accommodation in the recently published National Student Accommodation Survey 2021 by Save the Student. We work closely with university partners to provide the best possible support for students, so their experience of university life is as good as possible.

As Covid restrictions begin to lift, every student needs to be supported – just like school pupils have been - so they can return to campuses around the UK. Of course, that’s a challenge, and it’s a tough one given Covid-19 – but we have to take action now to get all students back on campus, because university life isn’t just about receiving an education.

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Richard became CEO in June 2016 after working as Unite's Managing Director of Operations since 2011 and joining the business as deputy chief financial officer in 2010. Prior to Unite, Richard worked in the transport industry in the UK, Europe, North America and Australia, including 13 years at National Express Group. Richard is now also a Non-Executive Director for Stenprop Limited.