Introducing Unite Students’ improved Student Support service

07 Sep 2021
By Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students
Unite Students has shared a raft of exciting new developments to our 2021/22 offer, including a trial of buildings aimed at meeting postgraduates’ needs and elevating our welcome process for international students. Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director, outlines more details about what we’re doing to upgrade and clarify our student support offer, which complements the services offered by our university partners.

Over the last decade, there has been a significant change in the way that student mental health is both viewed and supported, and Unite Students has continually developed its student support service alongside the changing landscape. One of the key progresses was the introduction of a dedicated student services team in 2015. Welfare leads were also introduced within our city operational teams, to enhance how we communicated with students about their wellbeing. Earlier this year we wrote about a growing understanding of student mental health needs, and how we play our part in responding to this. 

In line with this, in recent months we have sought to further to improve and professionalise our Student Support service. It was paramount that any changes must sit clearly within the boundaries of our duty of care as a student accommodation provider. 

The change of name from Student Services to Student Support was the first step in being clearer about our role. It is important that we don’t give students or parents the impression that we duplicate university services such as counselling or take on responsibilities of other agencies, such as investigating reports of sexual assault or providing specific advice on treatment for mental health. Instead, we are there to respond to incidents or disclosures in a sensitive, timely and knowledgeable manner, escalate where necessary and help students to find and access services. Our role is also to provide a healthy and safe environment and take appropriate practical actions, which may include room moves or flat mediations. 

Alongside the change of name, an early priority has been to update our policies and procedures. We now have an improved safeguarding policy, risk assessment and case conference protocols, welfare check guidance and an assistance animals policy. Over the coming months we will be publishing our overarching Student Support policy, and further protocols including disability reasonable adjustments. 

You may have seen already that we are recruiting a Head of Student Support, a new role that will continue to develop and refine the service in response to changing student needs. The postholder will also provide expert input into our wider student experience proposition, and develop a proactive wellbeing offer.

We also have a full complement of six Regional Student Support Managers who provide leadership and expertise to our local teams. The managers work to enhance and maintain excellent working relationships with university student services teams, to enable clear routes for students into the necessary support and a joint approach to student wellbeing where required. Most recently, Lildonia Lawrence has joined us to work with the South West region, drawing on her previous experience at the University of Westminster and as a young people’s wellbeing coach in the charitable sector. Frances Abbott has moved to support our London team, bringing a wealth of experience not only from her work with Unite Students but also from the police, probation service and students unions.

All of this takes place within a renewed commitment to customer service and community building across Unite Students as a whole. The need for belonging came out strongly in our most recent survey confirming what students had told us early in 2020, just before the pandemic struck. This year, we have increased investment in our ambassador scheme. The new Resident Ambassadors will take on a wider remit for community building and resident feedback within a fully trained and supported national programme. 

We will also be running a pilot of ‘look after your mate’ workshops this year, in which in-house trainers will deliver sessions curated by Student Minds, the UK student mental health charity. The workshop enables us to educate students, equipping them with key skills for independent living. The session covers the following topics: 

  • An introduction to student mental health and the student experience
  • Understanding when a friend may be struggling
  • Communication techniques
  • Signposting and boundaries
  • Self-care and looking after yourself whilst supporting a friend

As a result of these service improvements and upcoming projects, we will be better equipped to support this incoming cohort of students, who have experienced such severe disruption to their education and social opportunities. We are entering the new academic year with a refreshed perspective, knowledge, and improved ways of working in student support, to provide a home for success for students joining us in the coming weeks.

Further details about our 2021/22 welcome and service proposition can be found here in our Return to Campus partner pack.

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Jenny Shaw is Student Experience Director for Unite Students. She has previously worked for three UK universities and as a consultant to national HE sector organisations prior to her time at Unite Students.