One year on from start of first lockdown: What we’ve learned
Looking back to March 2020, it’s still difficult to believe the speed at which the Covid-19 situation developed in the UK. While the threat of Covid-19 had been established over the previous two months, it seemed distant; perhaps unsurprisingly, given that much was made of the Zika and Ebola viruses, only for them to be contained upon arrival in the UK. But the news cycle in early March was dominated by scenes from northern Italy’s dramatic outbreak of Covid - culminating in Italy going into national lockdown on 10th March - and, as the number of cases in the UK rose, it became clear that this threat was not so easily contained.
The next two weeks saw a snowball effect of heightened concerns: mass event cancellations, supermarket shortages, and the first government restrictions laid out. Unite Students was in the same boat as our university partners: trying to make sense of the escalating situation while doing everything we could to keep our staff and students safe. Faced with ‘unprecedented circumstances’, we realised that working together and staying connected with sector partners would enable us to better prepare for whatever was around the corner.
By the time lockdown was announced on the evening of 23 March, a plan was in motion at Unite Students: earlier that day, we had confirmed that students unable to return home for the summer would be able to stay with us free of charge, as well as reaffirming commitments to student safety and wellbeing support. The next day, following discussions with universities, professional bodies and health authorities, we were the first in the sector to announce that students who did not intend to return to their accommodation for the summer term could surrender their tenancies and, in doing so, forgo further rental payments. With so much uncertainty for students at this time, we wanted to play our part in lightening the load.
We contacted our university partners to let them know of this decision, and indeed keeping universities actively involved in our plans was a key part of our strategy going forward, as it meant that we could support students to the best of our ability without duplicating efforts across the sector. Collaborating with partners is a key part of our business anyway, but the importance of this has only been reinforced over the course of the last year.
This was no more evident than when it came to putting together our Safe and Secure strategy. Having put together a pack outlining the comprehensive safety and wellbeing measures we had put in place to support students in our residences, we invited senior representatives from our university partners to a round table in May to pilot the pack, get feedback on it, and adapt it accordingly. We were able to share the full Covid safe strategy in early June - when we became the first and only student accommodation provider to be certified by the British Safety Council as a Covid assured workplace - followed by the launch of our Home Charter in late July, which explicitly outlined the mutual culture of respect expected within our properties.
We continued to adapt our safety measures throughout the summer, including a £250,000 investment in antiviral fogging machines, and worked on our preparations for the autumn return to campus; students had expressed an overwhelming desire in our first Covid snapshot survey to return to campus once it was safe. One key improvement was upgrading our digital capabilities to enable students and our employees to stay safe. We’d already implemented functionality in our MyUnite app for students to let us know if they were self-isolating, but new features included enhancing our digital check-in capability and an expanded reach for our uChat feature, enabling students in flats and studio apartments to safely meet more of their neighbours than ever before. Both of these developments will remain in place to provide a better arrival experience for students beyond the pandemic.
Another key takeaway from the past year was the importance of community, connection and combatting loneliness. As Jenny Shaw recently shared, we had undertaken research on what community meant to students shortly before the first lockdown, which proved not only fortuitous but helpful in providing online events. We ran a number of popular, small-scale virtual events throughout both the first lockdown and for new students in the autumn.
However, with the picture rapidly changing once more across the UK, Wales entered a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from 23rd October and England went back into lockdown for a month from 5th November, while Scotland introduced a tiered system of ‘levels’ from 2nd November and placed 11 council areas including Glasgow City into level four, the highest available, for three weeks. Our second Covid snapshot survey, held in November, supported our concerns that - while students largely felt they had made the right decision to come to university - there were hindrances to building friendships: while 52% of students agreed that they were meeting new people and making new friends, 29% disagreed.
As such, we ran a digital campaign called ‘Unite Against Loneliness’, which promoted on our student-facing Common Room website and social media channels ways to socialise safely, students’ stories of struggling with loneliness, and where students could turn if they were experiencing loneliness, with remote welfare checks on offer for those that needed them. We were also in the process of running a pilot peer-to-peer support project called ‘Students Supporting Students’, responding to student feedback in our 2019 New Realists report which showed students were more likely to talk to other students about their mental health. As a result, we worked with our student ambassadors and student services team to deliver content which drew on material from Student Minds.
One of our values is ‘Creating room for everyone’, and this was an important part of ensuring students felt included and stayed connected regardless of their circumstances. As the English and Welsh lockdowns eased, and level four restrictions eased in Scotland, provisions were put in place to allow students to return to their friends and family for Christmas. We ensured that support was available for students who remained on site over the winter holiday, and shared with our Higher Education partners an article on how to communicate with ‘remainer’ students in an inclusive way, taking into account the many and varied reasons why students might be in their accommodation over the break.
Despite governments’ autumn measures, more virulent variants of the virus took hold across the UK over the winter, and early in January, all nations within the United Kingdom announced new lockdown measures. With ‘stay at home’ orders in place across England, Scotland and Wales, many students found themselves unable to return to their accommodation, but still paying for it.
So on 11 January, we announced our first rent discount for eligible students. This was due to last four weeks, but with ‘stay at home’ restrictions continuing across Wales and England into March and Scotland into April, we extended this twice: first in February for three more weeks, and in March for a further three weeks. This brought the cumulative value of our Covid support for students to over £100 million since March 2020. Again, we ensured our university partners were connected into these developments, as well as the newest updates to our Safe and Secure offering in late January.
Finally, we have recognised the resilience of the students who live with us throughout the past year. While it has understandably had its negative impacts, with 77% of students in our third Covid snapshot survey reporting they had struggled with their mental health, 84% of those surveyed also said that university life had had a positive impact on their mental health. We have a robust, joined-up system for responding to mental health concerns, based on our Student Services Framework, and we have also continued to innovate: with studying and learning increasingly taking place within our properties due to the necessity of online teaching, in January we launched our ‘Study Skills of Highly Successful Students’ webinar pilot, a new and exciting innovation.
We have all learned so much from the past year. Here at Unite Students, we’ve learned the importance of being able to quickly adapt to unfamiliar and ever-changing circumstances, been reminded of the value of research and responding to students’ needs and, most of all, had it reinforced how much stronger we are when we work together with our partners. There is plenty more to be learned from this past year, but these lessons will endure long after masks and lateral flow tests have been dispensed with.