Building a remote community – what we have learned and what there is still to learn

08 Feb 2021
By Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students
This blog is based on a keynote presentation given at a Westminster Higher Education Forum conference on 4th February 2021.

It may seem strange to talk about student community almost a year into a global pandemic and in the midst of a lockdown. Yet in many ways, it is the ideal time to understand the impact that community, friendship and sense of belonging have on students when all of these things are so challenged.

In 2019, we embarked on a journey to understand more about what community means to students and how they go about navigating it. Our summer 2019 report in partnership with HEPI, The New Realists, had already taught us about loneliness. In this report we found that over a quarter of first year students were often or always lonely, and that this was associated with significantly lower wellbeing. In other words, a functioning student community has a strong measurable impact on wellbeing.

This prompted us to look further. A significant body of research in the US showed that a sense of belonging among students has a positive impact on retention, motivation, academic achievement and wellbeing. In this sense, building a sense of community is central to the whole student experience. As an accommodation provider, these were exciting findings for us. It meant that what happened within our accommodation could have a material impact not just on students’ social experience, but on their chances of success. Home for Success, our business purpose since 2014, could be more than a guiding principle; it could be a demonstrable fact.

…And then Covid-19 hit the UK.

Just before the lockdown, we managed to squeeze in a qualitative study on what community meant to students and how they went about forming and navigating it. The findings were incredibly valuable when trying to find ways to replace the usual student community building activities with an online equivalent.

One of the very clear findings was that small scale and niche social events are popular with students as a way to make new friends. So we set out to offer these online, working with our paid student ambassadors and content creators. They used a number of platforms - including Instagram, which was very popular - to run a broad range of small-scale events during the first lockdown, and for new students in the autumn. We had 67,000 engagements with this content in the first month and reached almost 400,000 in total, so it went way beyond our own walls. 

To give it a vital boost at a critical time we also worked with Student Minds to run a #uniteagainstloneliness social media campaign. We know that October is the time when students tend to approach our staff to talk about their loneliness and homesickness, so we wanted both to normalise the experience and to provide advice and sources of support.

For the new cohort of students in the autumn, we were guided by the way in which students naturally go about making friends. We heard a lot about how important door-knocking was in the first few days. Once you get to know the people in your own flat, you knock on the doors of other flats on the same floor to expand your social circle.

For years we’ve been offering private chat rooms in our MyUnite app for people in the same flat, so that they can be in touch before they arrive. This year we extended this and also offered chat rooms for whole floors – over 33,000 students used this feature.

However, something else that we learned from our research last year was the importance of friendship with course mates. These are students who share the same experiences and interests. But friendships with course mates take longer to develop, and may not become cemented until towards the end of the first year. 

I personally heard some moving accounts of course-related friends making a real difference to students’ mental health, and even enabling them to stay at university when they were thinking about leaving. The same was also true when it came to communities of identity – Black students, LGBT+ students, students who don’t drink. Our ability to support course-related socialising is very limited, but we heard some great examples of it being done well by universities. Supporting the development of communities of identity is something we’re considering for the future.

Within all this, there’s one group of students that were particularly at risk of disadvantage and vulnerable to loneliness; a group of students who can’t just go home, who don’t have a safety net and can be overlooked in policy decisions. This group is students who have been in care or are estranged from their parents.

The Unite Foundation advocates for care-experienced and estranged students, helps to bring their voices into the policy debate, and - on a practical level - gives about 250 free accommodation scholarships each year. At the start of the first lockdown, the Unite Foundation led a survey of care experienced and estranged students; even at this early stage, 55% said they were worried about loneliness.

The charity had recently launched a podcast, by and for estranged and care experienced students, presented and produced by Unite Foundation graduate Paige Mackenzie; this quickly began to foster a sense of community amongst the young people it was created for. During the initial lockdown period, Paige hosted a series of Instagram Lives for students without family support – many on their own in their student accommodation. 

The Foundation also began working with a team of students on the scholarship to develop a community identity for all Unite Foundation scholars, and other students from similar backgrounds. This is Us, which launched in December 2020, is a vehicle through which Unite Foundation students can communicate their hundreds of individual experiences, perspectives, interests and aspirations. It is also one through which they can articulate their collective needs and campaign for the things that matter to all estranged and care experienced students. As This is Us launched, the Unite Foundation handed over its website and social media to the students themselves, and is training and supporting a number of community co-ordinators and content creators, putting the students in the driving seat and in control of their own narrative.

Student community was important before Covid, but now we can really appreciate what it means and what happens when it’s taken away. Covid has exposed everyone’s vulnerability to loneliness, and we’re now all looking forward to when we can be together again. When we do, one of my hopes is that we’ll all do more to add value to the creation of student community, friendships and sense of belonging as a foundational aspect of the student experience.

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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