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What events do students really want in their accommodation?

Social opportunities are a key part of students’ university experience and, when held in their accommodation, offer the opportunity to foster a sense of community within their building. During the pandemic, virtual events made teams reconsider what students want from these events – and for the current academic year, Unite Students is using localised insight to inform our approach to the events we put on across our buildings.

In the last few years, social media has popularised a still from US sitcom 30 Rock: one in which Steve Buscemi – sporting a backwards baseball cap, a skateboard, and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Music Band’ – says: “How do you do, fellow kids?” It’s an image that epitomises the perils of being out-of-touch with young people – and, as many of us in the Higher Education sector know, there are few areas as risky as trying to put on suitable events for students.

So this year our Resident Ambassadors are leading our events programme, with support from our teams and informed by insight. It’s not the first time we’ve used insight to guide us on this: as we recently shared, student insight helped us to build the ‘Spring Festival’ programme of events in April and May this year. But in this instance, it’s been planned from the very start of the academic year.

Over the summer, we surveyed students joining us in 2021/22 to understand their interests, ambitions and areas of uncertainty. Looking at the findings by building, we could see clusters of similar interests such as arts and crafts, or film. This insight allows our Resident Ambassadors to design tailored events that really resonate with each of our student communities.

Mullets, movies and markets

Since equipping our teams with this insight, employees and Resident Ambassadors have grown more confident to suggest exciting and original events within our buildings, alongside more traditional events like film screenings. One forthcoming event is ‘Mullet Madness’, where our Portsmouth team have teamed up with a local barber to offer free mullet haircuts for any of our residents over the course of a weekend in October.

Further down the line, the team at Newcastle’s Wellington St Plaza are planning to host a Christmas market in the property’s courtyard, with a Christmas selfie backdrop area and stalls where small local businesses will sell cakes, cookies and crafts. This not only captures the festive spirit for domestic students, but it offers international students an opportunity to experience a classic Christmas market, tailored specifically for students.

And use of the data goes beyond just events. For example, our Leeds team noticed that 65% of their respondents were uncertain about the process of registering with a GP, so they brought in representatives from local GP surgeries to demystify the process and share brochures with a QR code that led to the registration form. Teams across the country are also working with local businesses to offer exclusive deals, freebies and competitions that will be of interest to the residents of their property.

Understanding students’ journeys

With around 75,000 students living in our properties across the UK, there’s been a tendency in the past to offer students a ‘one-size fits all’ service in their accommodation. But Generation Z expect a more personalised service. So over the past year, we’ve listened to students from a range of backgrounds to better understand their journeys through university: the key moments that they experience as they progress through each year of study, where they could most do with our support, and what that support might look like.

Of course, we know that students require the most support when they arrive for their first year, in order to make friends, adapt to independent living, and develop their own support networks in an unfamiliar environment. We saw last year the effects of a disrupted first term on students’ ability to build communities and feel a sense of belonging at university: our February 2021 student survey found that 56% of students had experienced difficulties in making friends – rising to 70% in first-year students – and there was a surge in those who said they had struggled with their mental health.

So we’re conscious of how important it is to offer first-year students a range of social opportunities early on to help them find likeminded students in their accommodation, catering to different interests, nationalities and personalities. Rebecca O’Hare from the University of Leeds wrote for us recently about how online events during lockdown made introverted students feel more comfortable in engaging with Residence Life activity.

But our insight also allowed us to think about what students who are further into their university experience want to gain from events. First-years might prefer regular events so that they can meet lots of people and get to grips with their new city, but third-years may prefer infrequent, low-key opportunities to get to know their neighbours and take a break from studying. Our survey insight allows our Resident Ambassadors to consider what events might best suit the population of each building.

Better understanding the student journey has influenced our decisions more widely this year. It’s encouraged us to run a trial of buildings aimed at postgraduates, where Resident Ambassadors will be able to facilitate events specifically catering to postgraduate students’ preference. We’ve also made some smaller changes that will better support different groups of students throughout their journeys, including a more personalised welcome service for international students, a more insight-driven content schedule for our student-facing blog, The Common Room, and student involvement in our new-look Home Charter, on which we’ll share more in the coming weeks.

There’s been a lot of excitement behind the scenes as teams come up with new ideas and ways of engaging with the students who live with us – and we can’t wait to share more plans with our university partners over the course of the academic year.

To find out what events your local teams are hosting, get in touch with your local representative.