According to analysis carried out by the BBC at the end of 2018, the number of students seeking mental health support while studying at university has increased by more than 50% in the past five years.
A new report, jointly authored by construction company Galliford Try and architect Scott Brownrigg attempts to isolate the impact of accommodation environments on student mental health and wellbeing. The report was generated from a roundtable discussion involving wellbeing professionals, university estate managers, student representatives and student accommodation operators.
In the forward, Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford, says: “Student accommodation plays a vital role in the student experience. A sense of belonging and security is essential for young people to be able to feel enabled to take on the risks and challenges of higher education and to achieve the associated academic and life growth.”
Julian Robinson, director of estates for the London School of Economics (LSE), adds: “Many universities are investing heavily in their academic estates, however, the same attention has not been given to students’ living spaces and with the increasing evidence of mental health issues on the increase, universities ignore this aspect of student experience at their peril.”
There was general agreement among the participants that the first year at university is an extremely important transition period in the lives of young people and that the environments which they live in during those transitional times have a huge impact on their experiences.
During the initial stages of transition the students’ terms of reference to new surrounding and relationships are perhaps at their most fluid. Their normal support networks are either remote or have disappeared. Participants talked about how our sense of ourselves is closely linked to our environments and that as students typically leave their family homes, this new environment will impact on their sense of wellbeing. Students potentially don’t fully understand this transition period and the fact that it is normal for them to go through a process of adjustment and re-attachment to a new environment.
The importance that the creation of the right culture and a sense of community can play in student wellbeing cannot be overstated.
Student accommodation should not be viewed in isolation from the whole university approach to wellbeing as the student accommodation community is an important part of the university community.
The location of the student accommodation in relation to the wider university estate was much debated. It was recognised that the different dynamics affecting urban campus and green field campus present challenges and require solutions unique to each context. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable.
Accommodation that is remote from the university teaching campus presents one of the greatest challenges to a sense of connectivity to the university and to the university community.
Great importance was placed on the role of social and communal spaces within buildings and their role in supporting communities and culture. These spaces can also help to combat isolation and help to integrate some students who spend a lot of time alone in their rooms.
It was felt that the size, scale and configuration of the accommodation played an important role in creating a sense of community and, in general, that the larger the scale the greater the challenge to creating a strong community.
Two areas that received concern when discussing community were the growth of studio flats and intercollegiate accommodation. Aside from the cost of studio accommodation there was agreement that the feeling of community can sometimes be harder to create and support and that there is a danger of isolation for students.
Buildings must be designed to allow for the serendipitous encounter, countered with the possibility of privacy and peace and quiet
The importance of tackling the whole environment and not just the physical environments was discussed and it was stressed that only a whole institutional approach to improving mental health and wellbeing would result in improvements.
For new students the initial period of university life can be overwhelming and so it is important to provide the right foundations for a student at the start of their university life. However, the induction process, intended to help engagement and connectivity, can itself be overwhelming.
Dave Corcoran, director of student support and transition at the University of Chichester, says: “If that engagement doesn’t happen in the first two weeks you have lost it and isolation may have started. The person who is still in their room or wouldn’t come out because they think it’s a socially engineered event. They are not lost to us but it’s so hard to get back into going forward.”
Creating global citizens
A lively discussion took place around the theme of nurturing citizenship. Many students will be experiencing independence for the first time and they will also be trying to understand and establish their place in their new university community.
The debate covered topics such as how students are allocated their student accommodation to create a social mix, broadening understanding of global citizenship and teaching life skills.
Mixing students from different backgrounds and courses within student accommodation was generally felt to be a positive approach but the degree to which accommodation providers and managers should take an active role in creating that mix is less clear.
Rob Hartley, head of estates strategy and programme at the University of Greenwich, says: “We are creating global citizens of the future and I think what is more important is the fact that they learn from the community that they are in, how to behave socially, racially, mix with different religions, learn to live sustainably, look after the environment, look after each other, look after their mental health and physical health.”
Students can often come to university without well-developed life skills which can lead to a feeling of not being able to cope. Some students may never have cooked for themselves, washed their own clothes, shopped, tidied their own room or organised many aspects of their own lives.
Research by the National Union of Students suggests 63% of students regularly feel like they struggle to pay everyday expenses and the largest proportion of all students’ expenses is accommodation, the cost of which has increased year-on-year.
The NUS carries out an annual accommodation costs survey and this is currently showing how much the relative cost of accommodation has increased in the past 10 years. According to the research, students are now spending up to 76% of the maximum amount of the student loan on their accommodation.
In recent times the student population has become more diverse, making the identification of ‘success’ difficult to capture in terms of a specific building typology.
It is, however, possible to identify preferences in terms of potential solutions. In this instance both the qualitative and the quantitative are bound together.
We must therefore address both style and substance in terms of the ‘homes’ we are planning for this complex and nuanced market and deliver habitats to nurture young people who have (more often than not) just left their homes and families.
We must bear in mind that young undergraduates may be vulnerable and overwhelmed when arriving at university and are looking for safety and comfort in order for them to flourish.
Besides offering shelter, student accommodation must facilitate the chance for cohesive communities to form that will allow for the expression of both internal and external ‘self’. This can be done via the ratio of private spaces to those that are shared and communal.
The continuum that lies between social, shared and interactive, and private, isolated and introspective can be assessed in terms of building configuration and arrangement and pitched at an appropriate level to accommodate a range of people.
However, what the client and the design team cannot always account for is the rapidly developing virtual world. This exists in terms of intangible social spaces, where contacts and communication are one step removed from the real-life encounter that human beings are programmed to rely on and enjoy. As virtual connectivity has flourished, individuals have become less reliant on real experience and a sense of isolation and missing out has become more commonplace. Buildings must be designed to allow for the serendipitous encounter, the chance meeting and the anchor points of key destinations within a hall of residence that act as gathering spaces. This must be countered with the possibility of privacy and peace and quiet, where a student can rest, reflect, sleep and recharge for the adventure that the wider campus offers.
This report is a condensed version of the report on Impact of Accommodation Environments on Student Mental Health and Wellbeing by Galliford Try and Scott Brownrigg, written and produced by Claire Jackson, David Long, Alistair Brierley, Ian Pratt and Michael Olliff, with a foreword by Alan Percy