Why community matters when housing students

University of Sussex Head of Housing, Dean Spears, looks at the importance of university and community collaboration for student housing

It’s indisputable that students bring income and vitality to every town and city in the UK with a further education college or university.

But with expectations rising all the time from students about their housing, how and where to accommodate a lively young population has become a perennial challenge for educational establishments and their local neighbourhoods.

This is something that the University of Sussex’s housing team has been addressing through a range of initiatives intended to foster good relations between its students and the community.

In November 2015 it opened an information centre in one of nearby Brighton and Hove’s most highly populated and diverse districts.

With the Sussex campus being four miles from the city, the purpose of the centre was to provide a point of contact for anyone wanting to know more about the courses, research and activities of the university.

But the majority of the 1,500 visitors so far have wanted to talk about housing – from students wanting assistance on accommodation, to landlords and letting agents offering their services, and local residents and businesses popping in out of curiosity.

The university’s head of housing, Dean Spears, says: “The office is staffed by two members of the housing team, and it has really helped with community relations. It reminds people that, although we are a campus university, we are also part of the wider community and we have been here a long time.”

University of Sussex Housing Services

Sussex currently houses 5,500 of its 16,000 students in its own managed accommodation, both on and off site. This will rise to between 7,000 and 8,000 in three to four years after the redevelopment of a 1970s campus block, known as East Slope, that has reached the end of its life.

The campus, established in the 1960s with its iconic Basil Spence “brutalist” architecture and emphasis on green space, is a popular choice for students.  To retain its distinct character and heritage, careful consideration has to be given to any new building or landscape work. With the campus being surrounded by the South Downs National Park, any development must also comply with planning regulations aimed at safeguarding the environment.

This, says Spears, has led to them thinking more creatively about how to acquire more bed spaces. For example, through a partnership with South Downs College of Further Education in the historic Lewes four miles east of campus, the university has secured accommodation for 30 postgraduates in the town.

Sussex has 11 different price ranges to suit all pockets. More than a thousand students receive a £2,000 rent reduction (or the same amount towards private sector accommodation) through the university’s First Generation Scholar scheme, which is designed to help those from relatively low income families.

“This represents an investment by the university of around £2 million, which is awesome,” says Spears. “It enables students to move around and it minimises segregation. We find that, of those who receive the discount, a good 65 per cent use it to upgrade to the higher end accommodation.

On one occasion, a letting agent was insisting that students showered between 6am and 6.30am, which was ridiculous. So our team intervened.

“Expectations from the students have changed,” he adds. “I’ve worked in the sector for more than 20 years and they now want much more. They want to move around. They want assistance with tenancy agreements. Their housing needs are second only to their studies in terms of what’s important to them.”

To help with this, Sussex adopted an automated software system, StarRez, to provide online waiting lists and house swaps. It also means that on A-level results day, all students who have met their grades and are destined for Sussex will receive an email by midday informing them where they will be living, what time to arrive, and how to pay.

But it is within the local community that Spears feels he and his 24-strong team are demonstrating the strength of their commitment to good community relations.

In addition to the shop, they have a drop-in office on campus, there are residential advisors who live in the accommodation to help and to signpost support services, and they hold evening meetings with local community groups to smooth out any issues.

One of the greatest challenges, he says, is Brighton’s private rented sector. “If you try to rent a house, it’s competitive. We are doing lots of work with the Students’ Union to tackle standards in the private sector.

“With Brighton and Hove City Council we launched a website called Rent Smart, where we give advice to the general public – and students – about their housing rights, deposits, guarantor schemes and other matters, and our law department and their students have also been offering free legal advice to members of the public.”

University of Sussex Accommodation

His team often go through tenancy agreements with students who are about to move into the private rented properties to make sure the requirements are reasonable for both sides.

“On one occasion, a letting agent was insisting that students showered between 6am and 6.30am, which was ridiculous. So our team intervened.”

Another important aspect of their work is to remind students about being responsible residents, such as putting bins out on time and keeping down noise and disruption in the evenings and at night.

Last year Spears and his team enlisted staff and students to carry out two street clean-ups in busy parts of Brighton, and cleared more than two tons of waste for recycling. “It’s the sort of thing that can make a very visible difference to a community and helps to foster good relations.”

He also sees the value in ensuring his team can become specialists in what has become a highly specialist field.“We invest a lot in training and support and have just received an Investors in People Award for this. My team members take MBAs – I did mine over three years here at Sussex – and have one-to-one mentoring to enable them to progress in their careers.”

But Spears is motivated by more than a just professional interest.

“Social housing is really important to me,” he says. “I was brought up on an inner city Birmingham council estate, in fuel poverty, had pneumonia and asthma.  Everywhere was damp-ridden. I can pretty much walk into any room off campus or in the city and immediately tell if it’s got damp.

“The best part of my job now is working with the city council, and politicians to improve housing standards.”

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