Accommodation may not be the first thing students think about when they decide which university to attend, but it becomes paramount quickly. It is an increasingly important factor in the decision-making process and in shaping the university experience.
With this in mind, we decided to radically change the way we dealt with applications back in 2015.
This coincided with the opening of our new student village, St Mary’s.
Prior to this, we were typical in the way we asked students for their hall preference and held onto their application until A-level results week in August. Then began the mammoth task of going through each application and allocating them manually, with first preference given based on the date of application. We also went through and took out all the applications that were an insurance choice and no longer attending Bangor.
Typically, we would receive quite a few calls or emails from unhappy applicants when they hadn’t been allocated their first or sometimes second preference, and generally did not want to wait until we opened our room transfers in October. We employed a temporary member of staff to help with the phone calls at this time, as it was manic to say the least.
With the opening of St Mary’s, our new student village, we offered a variety of new accommodation options. These ranged from townhouses to four different-sized studios and four different-sized en suite rooms. The addition of St Mary’s to our portfolio allowed us to close our oldest standard halls, giving us about 2,960 rooms with 83.5% of the remaining stock en suite. All of our accommodation is self-catered, due to the demise of and, pardon the pun, lack of appetite for catered halls.
With a much more attractive portfolio on offer, we decided to invest in a new system that would give direct choice to the students. In essence, this allowed them to choose their own room as they would choose a seat on a plane. The beauty of this was that they could do this from the day we opened applications, typically in April. The overall benefit of the new application system meant we would not have that manic few weeks in August, and more importantly the students weren’t having to wait to find out where they were going to be living.
This has meant the workflow is more evenly distributed over a few months rather than a few days/weeks, thus dispensing with the need to employ extra staff in August. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still busy at peak times such as the day applications go live and immediately after A-level results. You still have to deal with those that chose not to apply until late August or later, and those that apply through clearing; but in comparison to the old system, it is much calmer. There has also been a vast reduction in student complaints, as they chose their room and were not allocated somewhere they did not want. We still operate room transfers in October, but it’s usually friendship groups that want to relocate, or very late applicants who would prefer a different room type or hall.
In addition to allowing students to choose their own room, we have also added other designated areas to enhance their student experience. We have specific postgraduate halls, quiet halls – which are for students that prefer a quieter environment – and mature undergrads can choose to live in either.
The need for quiet halls has increased year-on-year, and they now occupy a couple of blocks, rather than the couple of flats we used to offer. Introduced new this year are alcohol-free flats that are proving very popular, so much so that I have added another couple of flats due to demand.
In addition to these we have female-only flats, a Welsh-speaking hall (Neuadd JMJ), and a hall for healthcare science students. We also offer ‘returner only’ halls for those coming back to their second, third or fourth years, separate to the first-year students.
Students living in our accommodation get gym and Campus Life membership included in the price of their halls. Prices include all bills for wifi, heating, electricity and water, together with contents insurance. There is security on-site 24/7 and support includes senior wardens and a large team of student mentors, there to help with any pastoral issues. Campus Life is a programme of events that runs throughout the year. Events include film nights, quizzes, open-mic nights and trips within the local area to take part in outdoor activities.
We offer guaranteed accommodation to all new first-year, full-time undergraduate students who make the application before the deadline, and hold Bangor as their first choice.
Our halls were voted best in the UK for quality of accommodation at the What Uni Student Choice Awards in 2016 and 2018. We have been in the top three since we have made all the aforementioned changes, which in my mind speaks volumes. Last year and this year we are finalists in the NSHS awards for student accommodation, voted for by our student residents.
It is important to note that we always have the student experience as our main objective to any changes we plan to adopt.
What’s next I hear you ask? Well, next on the agenda are show flats which we plan to implement for the 2020 intake. Watch this space.
Jeanette Wilson is the accommodation manager for halls of residence at Bangor University and is the Wales regional representative for the Association of Student Residential Accommodation (ASRA).