2020: A Unite year in review

21 Dec 2020
By Darren Ellis, Higher Education Engagement Director at Unite Students
After all that has happened in 2020, it’s tempting to run at full pelt towards 2021 and never look back. Everyone has made sacrifices; many have also felt loss. But with its impact likely to be felt for years to come, it would be remiss to not look back at this extraordinary year, both for the challenges posed and the lessons learned by us all at Unite Students, as well as what we’ve achieved beyond Covid.

Covid-19 has influenced every part of our lives this year and, with circumstances often changing rapidly, it has pushed us all to adapt and respond at short notice. Making decisions with so much uncertainty – both about the virus itself, and local and national regulations to combat it – has proven hugely challenging, but with so much uncertainty, we knew how important it was for students to have clarity. In March, we led the way by being the first PBSA provider to cancel rental payments for the final term of the 2019/2020 academic year.

Providing a safe living environment for students has always been our top priority, and the pandemic has tested this commitment like never before. David Marr and Jenny Shaw outlined some of the ways in which we’ve been keeping our students safe in their CUBO Winter Conference presentation, but it’s worth repeating the fact that safety goes beyond simply having physical measures in place. To encourage compliance, we launched our Home Charter in advance of the new academic year in order to foster a culture of mutual respect within our buildings.

Mandatory masks, social distancing and Perspex screens may be temporary, but we’ve made changes that will benefit students in forthcoming years, particularly through our digital team’s hard work in introducing new functionality to our student app, MyUnite. The scope of the uChat function, used to introduce students to their flatmates ahead of check-in, has been extended so that students can meet those in neighbouring flats as well, and those in studio flats can meet others in their building. When students arrive, they can now check in digitally, meaning no more long queues in reception!

In a challenging environment, we were still able to record 88% occupancy rates in the autumn, ahead of a new cohort of international students arriving in early 2021. While the events of the spring heralded dire warnings about the near future of international recruitment, demand has largely held up, although issues with visas and travel arrangements has meant many have started their academic year on line with a view to physically arriving in the UK when possible.

For any company to hold its head above water amid shifting tides this year was an achievement, but we were determined to move forward in the face of adversity, with our eyes on the future as well as the present. We have opened a new property in Leeds, been granted planning permission for a new site in Edinburgh, and acquired a new site in central London subject to planning permission. The integration of Liberty Living into the business has been finalised, and we are testing new initiatives like the peer-based wellbeing scheme Students Supporting Students.

With so much to make sense of from the year, and so many talking points for the sector,we launched the Accommodation Matters podcast in September. It was designed to offer expert insight, best practice, and the latest research on key issues facing the higher education sector and, most importantly, the implications for student accommodation. Our four episodes thus far have featured guests from UCAS, Student Minds, Universities UK International, and the Higher Education Policy Institute, alongside six different universities.

Despite all the turmoil and financial challenges, we were still determined to give back to students and communities this year. We have continued to support the Unite Foundation and have now provided free accommodation and wrap-around support for over 500 students who are care experienced or estranged, for up to three years while they are at university. We have also reached the milestone of raising £1 million for the British Heart Foundation since 2017, through a stock donation programme in which students donate unwanted items. This has also saved more than 556,000kg - the equivalent of 464 family-sized cars – from being disposed of in landfill.

We continue to undertake research that we hope will help benefit the sector with Covid student experience survey results, being released in both June and November. The summer survey’s headline stat that nearly 9 in 10 students wanted to return to campus once it was safe to do so clearly demonstrated that there was an appetite for students to return to campus, dependent on safety measures. Our autumn survey revealed that 93% of students planned to stay on at university despite an unorthodox start to the year.

The full extent of 2020’s legacy is yet to be known, and few will remember the year with any fondness. It has created so many un-certainties in our lives, and denied us all of pleasures great and small. But in response to the difficulties faced personally and professionally, we have seen incredible strength, resilience and endurance from our teams. Their hard work during this year will continue to keep students safe into the New Year – and that’s a part of the legacy of which we can all feel proud.

We’ll be sharing our New Year’s resolutions in January, but until then, we at Unite wish you a well-deserved, safe festive season and a happy New Year.

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Darren is responsible for the group strategy for higher education and relationship management of our university partners. Darren joined Unite Students in 2002. He was appointed Higher Education Engagement Director in January 2016 having held a variety of roles within Unite including University Partnership Director. Prior to joining Unite, Darren spent 17 years working for Barclays Bank PLC where he held a number of senior roles. at Unite Students