International impact on economy

Students are drawn to the country which fascinates the world, says Richard Smith

Q: In your opinion, what were the major developments in the UK higher education sector in 2015? Has it been a successful year for UK HE?

A: The most significant development in UK higher education in 2015 has, without a doubt, been the removal of the cap on student numbers. We currently work closely with more than 60 universities. During their planning for higher student numbers in 2015/16 they collectively increased their demand for accommodation from us.

A key success of the year for UK HE has been the increasingly large number of international students choosing to study here in Britain, undeterred by our country’s rigorous approach to student visa applications. There is an indisputable value of international students to the UK. Universities UK estimates they generate more than £2.2bn for the economy.

Q: Removing the cap on student numbers is one of the most debated topics in UK higher education. How will this affect the UK HE scene next year?

A: Students now have a greater choice of university. I believe this will give a greater diversity of students the confidence to apply for and take up university places. This is something we anticipate understanding more about when we carry out our annual survey of all 46,000 students who live with us.

Q: Figures released from HESA earlier this year show that graduate employability is improving. Could universities be doing more to boost prospects for their students?

A: Unite was founded in 1991. Almost 25 years later, we now offer far more than solutions to bed provision to students and universities in almost 30 cities. This September, we launched a digital platform called Student Life Hub which is available to every student who lives with us.

All of the content on there is created to help students master life skills, from doing their laundry to locating and making friends. The hub can help them build up their CVs by getting involved in voluntary work and organising events.

Q: UK HEIs performed well in the world university rankings and league tables this year, suggesting we are doing enough to stay competitive in an international market, do you agree with this? What could we be doing better?

A: We have gathered evidence, from surveying our 8,000 London students, that whilst the reputation of the university and course are their key reasons for coming to the city they are also eager to have a ‘London experience’. I think we could work more closely with all of our universities on helping students make the most out of that ‘bucket list’ item – to experience life in England or Scotland. The United Kingdom fascinates the world.

We could work more closely with all of our universities on helping students make the most out of that ‘bucket list’ item

Q: The Prime Minister has pledged to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017. Will this impact the HE sector next year? How?

A: There is real value to our HE sector and wider economy from international students. Universities UK estimate there are currently 125,000 EU students at British universities. It is not yet clear how Britain’s relationship with the EU could change and so impact is impossible to guess at.

Q: What lessons have we learned in 2015 that will help us prepare for the year ahead?

A: Students and universities want more from us than the 46,000 beds we provide across England and Wales. They want supportive home environments. We have become increasingly aware of this need and our work in the future is about further developing our homes and relationships to help increase the successes for this and generations of students to come.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the sector for the next year?

A: A mix of changes will compel universities to put even greater attention on supporting their students. These include the imminent Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), end of maintenance grants and any potential changes to student visa applications. Issues that lead to students dropping out of their course, such as financial difficulties or stress, are often first obvious in their accommodation. We feel we have a lot to contribute to helping universities help their students stay on track so they can go on to make the most out of their university years.

Richard Smith is the Managing Director of Operations at Unite Students W:

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