Putting student health first

We need a national conversation about student health, says Mark Allan, chief executive of Unite Students

At Unite Students, we currently house more than 46,000 students, more than any single university. This will rise to almost 50,000 in the coming academic year when we open five halls this summer. Since we were founded in Bristol in 1991, we have hosted half a million students. By 2026, we anticipate more than one million students will have lived with us. This is an enormous responsibility. 

I predict that by 2020 more students will live in private halls than university-owned halls. Student numbers are increasing but university accommodation, which already fails to meet demand, is not. Universities are restricted in terms of their own capital outlay and government funding is essentially unavailable. However, many universities want to support first year and international students in their new lives by guaranteeing them accommodation. My forecast is based on current bed numbers which stand at around 320,000 at universities and 220,000 from private providers. I’ve also taken into account a likely growth rate of 30,000 beds per year in the private sector between 2016 and 2020. 

This means that we at Unite Students will be responsible for even greater numbers of young, and sometimes vulnerable, students. Student welfare, once solely the responsibility of universities, is now shared with businesses like ours. This is an incredible privilege for us as we are literally providing the supporting conditions in which bright minds can flourish. 

It matters to us that we get this right. Too often student health issues are dismissed as rites of passage but if our young people are to go on to achieve for themselves and to help shape the future of our societies then we need to give them homes that keep them healthy and safe.

By 2026, Unite Students expects more than one million students will have lived with us. This is an enormous responsibility 

We already offer 24-hour support to our students both through a helpline, which can be called at any time, and through our teams who work inside our buildings during extended working hours and do everything from taking in student parcels to organising social events which help the students make new friends. 

The most frequent problem we are asked to solve is helping students who have lost their keys and locked themselves out. However, other problems can range from supporting lonely and homesick students, particularly in their first six weeks of university, who want a shoulder to cry on to dealing with students who self-harm out of stress. 

Of course, our teams are not health experts but what we can do is be alert to potential problems, listen and then make sure students are given the right attention when they need it. For example, we collaborate with a listening service created by students for students called Nightline. When our emergency call centre has a distressed caller desperate to talk to a counselling service we can connect them. Recently, we have collaborated with the University of Aberdeen to train some of our frontline staff in handling early signs of distress and mental health issues. 

It’s crucial that we work closely with universities on student health – to learn from them and share with them solutions to best support our brilliant young people. 

Unite Students was founded 25 years ago in Bristol out of a belief that students deserve good homes. There was a shortage of university-owned accommodation in the city so Unite Students opened a private hall. Now, Unite has 132 halls in 28 cities across Scotland and England. It supplies more than 60 universities with accommodation. At the heart of Unite Students is one purpose which is to give its students a ‘home for success’.


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