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Supporting students - the road ahead

Einita Sohal, ASRA & Unite Students, talks about supporting students on their journey from leaving home to graduation

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 21, 2016 | Students

This academic year we have welcomed our largest-ever number of students. We have 50,000 people living with us. For the majority, this is their first home away from home. It is a huge privilege for us to help our students take their first independent steps in the world. It is a responsibility which we take very seriously. 

More than half a million students have lived with Unite Students since we were founded 25 years ago, and we have always listened to them. We have front desk teams in all of our buildings and we carry out annual surveys to find out what our students want. 

However, during the last five years we have expanded our listening to additionally survey the wider student body, beyond those living with us. We want to understand better the hopes and fears of our students, what makes them happy and what challenges them. All of this will help us better support them which is the key purpose of our business. 

This year, our Insight Report surveyed our largest-ever number of applicants and undergraduates. We enlisted the help of Youth Sight and YouGov to gather information from almost 9,000 people studying in the UK. A key finding was that 12% considered themselves to have a mental health problem. It was interesting for us to see that this figure was consistent amongst the applicants and students, suggesting to us that when many first year students arrive they are facing the biggest change in their lives at a time when they can be experiencing mental health challenges. Alongside this we discovered how important a feeling of integration is to our students and how connected that is to their ability to get the best from their study years. 

Our Insight Report 2016 revealed that students depend a great deal on their families for support, not just financial but also in making decisions and for help with solving problems

Findings like these have encouraged us in our desire to offer more support to our students. 

During the last two years we have been working on training front-line employees in ‘active listening’. This means that our front desk, housekeeping, maintenance and safety teams can remain alert to potential or emerging student concerns and feel more confident about understanding the emotional wellbeing of their students.

We are also piloting what we call Welfare Leads in just under half of our 28 cities. These are employees who coordinate student welfare cases and act as a knowledge base for their peers, in particular regarding mental health. 

We are finding that collaborative working with university Welfare teams brings timely and coherent support for students. 

We plan to roll out the Welfare Lead programme to the rest of our cities by spring 2017.

It is crucial to us that we share our findings with the 60 universities we work with and also with sector bodies and think tanks, such as the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). This means we will be better able to understand what we are finding and how to offer appropriate help or design our buildings and services to provide solutions. 

Our Insight Report 2016 revealed that students depend a great deal on their families for support, not just financial but also in making decisions and for help with solving problems. We are very aware that many students do not have family support and for this reason we founded and are the major donor to The Unite Foundation. In 2015 our first students graduated from our programme which we run in conjunction with 10 universities. To date we have supported 160 scholars though The Unite Foundation.

ASRA is the largest, and most representative, member-led organisation in the field of student residential accommodation. Our ASRA membership gives us opportunities to help all of us who support students better understand their needs. 

W: www.asra.ac.uk  

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