Poppy Humphrey: the secrets of off-campus living

An off-campus student affairs officer from Manchester packed her bags and spent a week in digs to find out what off-campus life is really like

For many working in higher education, we have daily interactions with students, but how much do we really understand the student experience, especially when it comes to living off campus?

Such an understanding is vital to ensure that off-campus services offered by universities are shaped to suit the needs of our students.

Further, it is imperative that institutions with a high proportion of students living off campus can continue to promote community cohesion within the diverse communities in which our students reside.

It is imperative that institutions with a high proportion of students living off campus can continue to promote community cohesion

The United Kingdom Town and Gown Association (UKTGA) was established in 2014 by Cooper Healey, manager of Manchester Students Homes, after recognising the dearth of formal support for those professionals who work in an off-campus setting.

Fast forward five years and the UKTGA now has over 350 members within the network and provides a platform for those who specialise in off-campus support to enhance their skills, knowledge and understanding of issues arising in such communities.

It was back in November 2018 at the biannual UKTGA Conference where we heard from Simon Horniblow, managing director of Campuslife, about an initiative where a member of their team went back to live with a group of students in halls to find out what students really wanted from their accommodation providers.

The film offered a unique insight and prompted discussion back at UKTGA HQ about us working on something similar, but from an off-campus and community perspective.

Home from home?

And so it was, with my suitcases packed, that I left the comfort of my own home to become a student again, living a shared house ‘on location’ in Fallowfield, Manchester… for a whole week!

While I do have experience of living in shared student house (albeit some time ago), I was keen to learn from my new housemates about their experiences of community living and how they juggled academic pressures with other demands on their time: volunteering; socialising; and other extra-curricular activities.

We recognise that the student lifecycle is made up of many ‘firsts’, but we could be forgiven for forgetting how daunting it can be to live independently for the first time, even more so in a world with more increasing demands and pressures than ever before.

‘The Secret Life of Students’ is a series of short YouTube films designed to educate students about what to expect about life off campus.

Focusing on specific thematic policy areas including safety, housing, noise & ASB, waste and recycling, and community engagement, the videos will form part of our ‘Halls 2 Home’ campaign.

Halls 2 Home is delivered via Manchester Student Homes to support students, pre, during and post the transition from halls of residence into their own homes.

What struck me during my week living alongside students from The University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University was just how well-organised the group were in terms of general household management.

I was keen to explore issues around safety, health and wellbeing as well as alcohol and patterns of socialising

We talked about the systems they had established to manage their waste and recycling, cleaning, shopping and bills.

When Campuslife had initially put the call out to students via social media, we were keen to work with a group who would be relatable to their peers, typically second year, home undergraduates and those who chose the trajectory of living in a large shared house in an area with a high density of students.

I was keen to explore issues around safety, health and wellbeing as well as alcohol and patterns of socialising – issues that we as off-campus practitioners deal with daily and which often form the bulk of our workload.

A particularly interesting exercise during the week was working with the students and Greater Manchester Police to consider property insecurities in the local area, to demonstrate to students the importance of personal safety when living off campus.

What viewers will see isn’t perhaps surprising to those working in the field, but was an eye opener to my new housemates.

This alone reinforced the importance of universities and partnership agencies constantly drip-feeding messages about off-campus living.

Cooper, chair of UKTGA, describes the importance of developing engaging initiatives in this area: “It is vital to think outside the box when it comes to student engagement and we were delighted to work alongside Campuslife to create this suite of videos on a range of meaningful topics.

“I have no doubt that these will be effective locally as part of our Halls 2 Home campaign, but also to provide colleagues from across the UKTGA and beyond with a sounder understanding of the complexities of off-campus living for many of our students.”

Feeling connected

What did surprise me was the demanding schedules of students. During my week, I volunteered, learnt about part-time jobs, attended a library study session and even played a hockey match (it’s been a quarter of a century since I last held a hockey stick… and I still have lost it…).

I was interested to hear from my housemates about their views on the perceptions, by some, of students being transient, not invested in their local communities and, dare I say it, sometimes anti-social party animals. What was evident via my discussions was that many students do feel connected to their community and are keen to integrate.

It did surprise me that many students were unaware of many local community assets, public spaces and local amenities on their doorstep, all things which can enhance the feelings of connectedness with a local area.

My housemates discussed with me the connection to communities within communities, via courses, societies and sports teams, for example.

What was further evident was the support the house gave each other – whether this was quizzing each other for exam revision or having house excursions, the house felt like a community of its own. It certainly felt like a home rather than just a house with a transient group residing within it.

Mike Ritchie, creative director, Campuslife, comments: “We place student involvement at the heart of everything we do at Campuslife, so it was great to work with students who are living off campus and understand a part of the student experience which is often less thought about. The transition between first and second year, from campus to private accommodation, is huge, often with far less visible support than what is presented to students during the start of university life.

The transition between first and second year, from campus to private accommodation, is huge, often with far less visible support than what is presented to students during the start of university life – Mike Ritchie

“Manchester Student Homes are an amazing presence to all students and residents in Manchester, ensuring the very best in student housing and community cohesion. It was a fantastic experience working with Poppy, the team at Manchester Student Homes and the off-campus students in producing this set of videos and we hope that they help many more students who are about to move into the private sector.”

Certainly for those working in roles similar to myself and who often have to deal with the challenges arising from ‘studentification’ is that it is vital that we have policies and strategies in place to inform meaningful initiatives and campaigns to educate students and support not only them, but all members of our off-campus communities.

Partnership is also essential. We very often highlight the role of external agencies such as the police or local authority in town-gown discussions, but we mustn’t forget that we work in partnership with our students, too.

And, so, the film is designed to educate students in halls, and I’m hoping it’s of interest to colleagues as well, in order to gain an insight into the off-campus student experience.

Did I learn anything? I learnt that I haven’t forgotten the awkwardness of shared bathrooms…

However, the exercise served as a timely reminder that for those experiencing this rite of passage – and let’s not forget the majority of students spend the majority of their time living off campus – it is vital that we continue to grow and adapt our policies and management in this area.

  • Manchester Student Homes is a jointly funded department of The University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University which offers supports to students living off campus. For more information visit manchesterstudenthomes.com
  • The UK Town and Gown Association strengthens town and gown partnerships by providing a network of off-campus practitioners and resources, identifying and sharing leading practices, innovative solutions and creative opportunities within off-campus communities. Please visit www.uktga.org to find out more.
  • Campuslife is the UK’s leading student communication and engagement experts, working with over 85 higher education institutions across the UK to understand, connect and communicate with their students in order to provide the very best student experience possible.





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