It goes without saying that university life has been different since the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020. But while certain facets of university life have successfully pivoted to embrace tools like online learning, one area that’s impossible to replicate is the student halls experience.
Kevin Child, director of student services at Swansea University, says that, from the moment he dealt with the first suspected Covid case early last year, “my business-as-usual hat went right out the window”. Child’s views were echoed by others who spoke with University Business.
However, now that the vaccine programme is well under way, and the tantalising spectre of regular university life glimmers on the horizon, we spoke with ‘res life’ (residence life) leaders about what they do – and why life during the pandemic has cemented just how important a good student halls experience actually is.
An unpredictable job at the best of times
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic turned university life upside down, one repeated refrain about work for res life teams is how unpredictable the job can be – and how they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s beyond varied – no two hours, let alone days, are the same,” Ian Munton, director of library and student services at Staffordshire University told University Business.
Munton said that his remit in the job is “pretty broad”, and covers a wide range of tasks connected to student life: whether that be offering support for students who are struggling or discussing the long-term development of the university estate and its changing requirements.
“Providing support services, developing programmes, improving the student experience, and managing risk mean that every day will have within it a mixture of planned, expected activities – with most likely too many meetings,” he said. “This will be balanced with unplanned, but necessary, activity that may suddenly need to take priority. The point here is that working in a university – and having a responsibility to and for our student community and their supporters – means that there has to be an ‘anything and everything’ approach. I’m pretty experienced at that and really have come to welcome it.”
Deb Healy, head of residential services at Staffordshire works with Munton. She agreed with the assessment about how diverse the job is, and said she is absolutely never bored at work due to the constant variability of any given day.
“We have many meetings across departments to ensure we are collaborating and communicating with colleagues to improve our services further, and thinking of new innovative ideas that students will benefit from within the halls of residence,” she said. “There are many hours spent dealing with issues that have happened within the halls of residences – whether these are damage to the property, student fall-outs or crisis points for some individuals. But whatever the issue is, it is for us to maintain for every individual a supportive service that is consistent and reliable to offer help and guidance.”
Adapting during lockdown
It would, of course, be a mistake to suggest that ‘res life’ teams haven’t been working with students the whole time the coronavirus pandemic has been going on. Remote support has been a newly important part of the job. However, there have continued to be students on campus, even though many have headed home while remote learning makes up the bulk of their daily lives.
Swansea University, for example, dropped from its usual 4,500 students to as low as 700 at one point. Numbers since then have risen to a current level of around 1,100. Caring for all of these students – and giving them a halls experience that, while different, is still as beneficial as possible – has been of paramount importance.
“The students have been brilliant, there’s no question about that. They’ve adapted better than any of us” – Kevin Child, Swansea University
“The students have been brilliant, there’s no question about that,” said Kevin Child. “They’ve adapted better than any of us.”
Deb Healy said that, “We recently purchased gifts for all the flats who have been with us during the national lockdown – just because they have had such a tough year and we wanted to make them smile and [feel] valued, even if it was a small smile.”
Bringing the buzz back
But while there have been students on campus during lockdown, as well as online meetups, there’s no doubt that the current conditions have (understandably) changed the usual atmosphere.
“The buzz and noise you expect on a university campus is absent – and that is pretty sad,” said Ian Munton.
Kevin Child said that students are the lifeblood of a university; not just financially, but also in terms of providing life and community on campus.
“They’re what keeps us all going,” he said. “I’ve been at Swansea for 31 years, and I’ve never regretted a day of it because the students make life so brilliant for everybody. I’m really looking forward to being on a campus again with a vibrant population of young people moving around – whether they’re happy or sad [on that particular day] – just creating that wonderful atmosphere. That is the reason that we all do our jobs, I think.”
He said that, at present, the team is working out how they are going to best be able to support the incoming students starting in September. By that point, things will likely be closer to normality, but nonetheless different to the way things were just a couple of years ago.
“We recognise that they’re going to come in with a whole different set of needs and vulnerabilities to anything we’ve seen before,” he said.
A privileged position
Child noted that the focus is going to be on, where possible, being able to offer the halls experience students will be hankering for. At the same time, even without considering likely restrictions, the team is trying to learn from the current pandemic and what it has taught them about possible positive changes.
“In terms of support services, we were really worried at the beginning for our wellbeing teams and mental health mentors, that students who were accessing the services wouldn’t like it, and would withdraw from service,” he said.
“But the feedback we’ve been getting is that the vast majority prefer it, which kind of surprised all of us. Going forward, I think there’ll be a very different offering to students in terms of accessing what they want in ways that suit their needs better than it did before.”
One thing everyone agreed on is that the last year has made them appreciate the job that they get to do. Yes, it’s challenging. Absolutely, it’s a big responsibility. But it’s also an enormous privilege and a role that, done well, will have a lasting positive impact on students.
“Halls from the outside can be seen as a contract and as bricks and mortar,” said Ian Munton. “It is, for most, far more than that. It’s where friendships are formed, where many students first experience independence and for many it’s justifiably their ‘home’ – that’s certainly the case for some students who may be care-experienced or estranged from family.
“Add to this that students spend far, far longer in their halls than they will in the classroom.”
He continued: “It’s imperative that we, first, recognise this, and, secondly, that we create the conditions where students’ living setup can contribute to and influence their development, wellbeing and overall student experience.”
The feelgood factor
Architect Cindy Walters of Walters & Cohen Architects looks at the challenges of designing innovative, good-value student accommodation
In 2015, we started work on a new building at Newnham College, Cambridge, comprising new student bedrooms, study areas, conference facilities, offices, teaching spaces, a café and a new main entrance for the college. The building was completed in 2018 and has been in use since then. Three key aspects of the client brief were:
We set out to design student accommodation that promotes wellness. We started by consulting the students, asking them how they wanted to be able to live and work. What we learned from the students found its way into the design in several ways.
Newnham is set within extensive gardens so every bedroom and study space is designed to have a beautiful view.
The new porters’ lodge creates a wonderful connection between the street and the gardens, with comfortable seating where students, staff and visitors can be greeted, collect their post or wait for a friend.
Each bedroom has either a window seat or a pair of double doors (‘Juliet’ balcony) that open onto the gardens. Although the rooms are modest in size, this allows students to invite a friend in for tea. Each bedroom also has a small double bed, a good-sized desk, en suite bathroom and generous storage space.
Each group of 8–12 bedrooms has a shared kitchen where students can cook and eat together and also work in small groups. Students have told us they love the option to study together in each other’s kitchens rather than stay in their bedrooms or go to the library.
At the heart of the new building, the café is used by all members of the college and is open to all. It opens onto the gardens that, weather permitting, provide another popular place to socialise and study. From Sidgwick Avenue, there are views of students studying in supervision rooms and people drinking coffee and eating cake, acknowledging the significance of both in a balanced college life.
The gym occupies pride of place at roof level with views into the tree canopies and access onto a generous roof terrace for morning yoga.
A high-performing building envelope with natural ventilation, natural daylight, thermal mass and thermal performance maximises passive design measures and reduces reliance on energy. Heat loss was minimised as a result of excellent U-values and airtightness. The new building has a 100-year service life with high-quality materials requiring minimum maintenance.
The building and gardens promote sustainable ways of living; there are flats roofs to allow space for photovoltaic cells that are not visible from the street, a large recycling area, and the college chose to include a compost heap and allotment gardens. There is very little car parking on site so everyone is encouraged to walk or cycle.
Value for money
Value for money starts with a good client-architect relationship. Fully understanding the client’s needs and the opportunities offered by the site results in buildings that work well for their clients, lift the spirits and add long-term value.
The projects started with an estate-wide masterplan and a detailed audit of all existing buildings. This approach ensured there were no existing buildings that could be retrofitted to meet the college’s needs, and that the new building was located in the best possible part of the site.
While we were developing the masterplan we began the process of developing a detailed client brief to ensure that the new building would meet the needs of the college.
Following a procurement workshop, a JCT Design and Build was selected to provide the client with cost certainty. We worked closely with the client during stage 1 to select a contractor and during stage 2 with the selected contractor.
Most importantly, by working with our visionary client, a great contractor and a great design team, we delivered a significant project on time and on budget, that is built to last, fit for purpose and much loved by the people who live and work there. While the building is quintessentially Newnham, the concepts and ideas behind it can easily be applied to all university buildings.
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