Yearly digest: A round-up of Unite Students’ 2020/21

20 Aug 2021
By Jennifer Steadman, Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students
With the new academic year just weeks away and record numbers of university places having been accepted last week, we look back over what the last year has brought for Unite Students, and some of the key announcements, research, initiatives and blog posts we’ve put out in that time.

With the pandemic looming large, it was unclear how the 2020/21 year would pan out; but, despite an unclear picture, Unite Students came into the academic year having reassured our Higher Education partners by outlining our Covid Safe & Secure proposition - including our status as the first purpose-built student accommodation provider to be certified by the British Safety Council as a Covid-assured workplace - as well as our Home Charter. The Home Charter stated the behaviours we expected from students during the year, and what they could expect from us; this is currently being revamped for 2021/22 with student input. 

In September, we also launched our Accommodation Matters podcast, examining key Higher Education topics through the lens of student accommodation. Over the course of two seasons and nine original episodes, guests so far have included representatives from 14 Higher Education institutions as well as the likes of Clare Marchant, CEO of UCAS; Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s government International Education Champion; Shakira Martin, former President of the National Union of Students (NUS); and Sunday Blake, President of the University of Exeter Students’ Guild.

However, the year wasn’t to run smoothly, as the national picture quickly changed.

 

Getting students through lockdown

As students returned to campuses, another wave of Covid-19 swept the UK, sending thousands of students – including those living in our properties – into self-isolation. At first local, and then national, lockdowns were put into effect across the UK during October and November, disrupting first year students’ opportunities to get to know each other. Students were able to log that they were self-isolating through our MyUnite app, and our city teams went above and beyond to look after these students, ensuring they could get hold of essentials (and knew where to access these) and checking in on them to make sure their wellbeing was supported.

Aware of the impact that self-isolation and lockdowns might pose, our student channels ran a ‘Unite Against Loneliness’ campaign in early October, raising awareness of the impact of loneliness and how to stay connected during self-isolation. Our Student Ambassadors (to be rebranded this year as Resident Ambassadors) put on digital events throughout lockdown to keep students engaged, including talent shows, karaoke, dance lessons and gaming competitions; they also led the pilot of a peer support programme of webinars, developed with help from student mental health charity Student Minds. This has since been rolled out nationally.

Amid further lockdowns announced in the New Year across England, Scotland and Wales, Unite Students announced rent discounts for students who couldn’t return to our properties, as well as an update to our Covid safety measures for those who remained in their accommodation. These rent discounts, first announced for four weeks and ultimately extended to ten weeks for eligible students, took the amount of financial support we offered to students during the pandemic to over £100 million. 

Our most-read post of 2021 so far featured five students sharing their experience of living with us before and during the January lockdown. While they faced challenges, such as separation from vulnerable family members and cancelled placements, there was a general sense that their student accommodation was a positive space for them during a tough time.

 

Keeping the pulse of student wellbeing

Unite Students’ insight programme – expanded for 2020/21 – was vital over the course of the year, gauging how students were feeling in the face of many obstacles to their university experience. 

Throughout the pandemic, we carried out student surveys on the impact of Covid-19, with the findings of an isolation-themed survey being released in November, one on wellbeing in February, and views on vaccinations in May. These surveys went beyond just the students living in our properties, and looked at a broad cross-section of the student population, with some concerning findings. 56% of those surveyed in the February wellbeing survey said they had experienced difficulties in making friends, rising to 70% of first-year students, while over three-quarters (77%) said they had struggled with their mental health and wellbeing during Covid-19. In the wake of these findings, our CEO Richard Smith made a case for students being allowed to experience the full benefits of university life.

Mental health and wellbeing have been a priority for Unite Students since 2015, as the first provider of purpose-built student accommodation to offer a welfare service, but with the additional pressures of the pandemic we wanted to go further. In May, we also dedicated a full week of Higher Education website content to Mental Health Awareness Week, spanning topics including the specific cultural factors in play for Chinese students’ wellbeing, supporting students through the summer term, and how we look after employee wellbeing at Unite Students.

In the same week, we publicly announced that we had commissioned ‘Living Black at University’, a groundbreaking report into the experiences of Black students and employees in student accommodation. This report, undertaken with Halpin Partnership, will be launched later in 2021. 

Insight has guided us for the year ahead, too. To sense-check and shape our student proposition for 2021/22, we held an expert round table on the needs of this year’s incoming students and carried out a survey of applicants to assess their expectations, concerns and needs for the year ahead. These findings were incorporated into our recent ‘Return to Campus’ partner pack alongside our offer for the forthcoming academic year. Part of this is an overhaul of our Student Support services; more details on this will be made available in the coming months.

 

Supporting a sustainable future 

While the pandemic shaped the course of our year, we were able to continue developing in other areas, including launching our new sustainability commitments. Environmental sustainability is a key area of concern for students – in our June survey on climate change, students ranked climate change as their #1 concern – and we have committed to being a net-zero business by 2030, using insights from the pandemic to inform how we can achieve this. However, we’re also looking at sustainability in a wider sense: enhancing the health and wellbeing of employees and students, providing opportunities for all, and leading the student housing sector for the benefit of students across the UK. 

We’ve formed a new strategy team, with ‘Intrapreneurs’ hired from within the business to share their ideas and explore how we can futureproof our offer for students, as well as opening up the GeniuS campaign to allow employees from all across Unite Students to share and develop their ideas for where we can improve our service. In our recent ‘Return to Campus’ partner pack, we shared some of the outcomes of our strategy work, such as the our trial of buildings aimed at postgraduates and an improved offer for international students.

There’s also been the opportunity to recognise our employees’ superb work after 18 gruelling months of Covid, such as our virtual Stars awards in April, and do more to support them more broadly. Through hiring an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager we’re currently working to ensure employees have a voice whatever their race, sexuality, gender identity, disability or background. And we’re ensuring that young people have employment opportunities with us: following the government’s announcement of the Kickstart scheme in October, we recently hired 84 young people on a national living wage: you can read their experiences here.

 

So, what have we learned from this academic year? It’s been a challenge, but through the passion and talents of our people, we’ve proven ourselves resilient, flexible and responsive in a constantly changing environment. We’ve shown that we do what’s right in the face of adversity, be it investing in young people, listening to their needs, or our dedication to progressing our sustainability and equality, diversity and inclusion work through the most disruptive period for 75 years. Whatever the new academic year brings, we can navigate it – but for now, our teams are just thrilled to welcome students back to our buildings for another year.

Hear about how we're preparing for the year ahead in the latest episode of our Accommodation Matters podcast, Preparing for September (Part 2):

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Jen Steadman (she/her) is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector.