The student safety net

How do universities work with partners to ensure health and happiness for our undergraduates? Nicola Yeele finds out

On a typical day, today’s university student is touched by not only the university but by a number of external service providers from caterers to security guards. But when the university has the final responsibility to undergraduates for their wellbeing, how can universities successfully harness this web of support to give students the safety net they need?

Partnership working is not without its challenges: from competing agendas to misunderstandings, working with local councils can take time, and university processes for setting up partnerships can be lengthy. But the rewards may be greater than the sum of their parts and lead to long-lasting relationships. 

Nutrition in Nottingham 

At Nottingham Trent University, a successful initiative has invited local market traders selling healthy food on to campus. The benefits include more access to fruit and vegetables for the university community, increased profile for the university’s health and wellbeing strategy, and better partnership working. With a permanent presence there, fruit and veg stall holders are now involved in campaigns and events run by different departments across the institution, from the students’ union to the library, for example, handing out free bananas during exam periods. Not only is it easier for staff and students to make healthy choices, but the initiative makes good business sense for the partners involved too. 

We are facing a national crisis of sexual assault on campus. Universities are systematically flawed when it comes to reporting systems, disciplinary procedures and survivor support

Of course, one of the challenges faced especially by non-campus universities is reaching out to students when they are off site. Social media and use of virtual learning environments can be valuable tools for reaching out to students off-campus. Many universities run wellbeing weeks to bring external providers of relevant services onto site to showcase what they can do. But such initiatives can also work well in the opposite direction, reaching out to local businesses as a way of accessing students, an approach which works well for addressing alcohol use and misuse, currently a major focus of university effort to improve student health. In Bristol the ‘Have a safe night out’ campaign is part of an overall alcohol, noise and anti-social behavioural campaign across the city’s night clubs supported by independent business owners, Drinkaware and the NHS in partnership with local universities. New students at Bristol’s universities receive wallet-sized cards with key tips, local taxi numbers and alcohol units in their welcome packs and these are also distributed at various events as well as to night clubs in Bristol.

Support on and off campus 

The challenge of how to support student welfare offsite has been made even greater by the trend for high quality individual living arrangements: the communal ‘boarding school’ style experience of the past has now been replaced by blocks of single rooms built for independent living. John Gledhill, Director of European Operations at StarRez, says this has made it easier for students to become very isolated. He says, “Students are living 24/7 somewhere that’s not home. Actually they spend more time in their accommodation than they do typically in lectures; that shows just how important it is. 

“There are a lot of students who take out 40 to 50 week contracts and are resident in university accommodation year-round. There’s a real risk that if you don’t get it right you end up with students who leave, or have mental health problems.”

Nevertheless student wellbeing is business critical for both housing providers and the university. John says, “There is a commercial imperative; for universities that’s about the £9000 a year fee. It is cheaper to retain a student than acquire a new customer; for the housing provider, students who are happy with us, book again. A well balanced community means lower churn rates and happier people – and that’s good for business.” 

The solution is proactive community building and universities working in partnership with housing providers. In some of the most successful partnerships the housing itself is outsourced, but the university still own the relationship with students and are very passionate about that. For example, the University of Plymouth works with a series of housing providers but takes the housing site extremely seriously. Creating lively, supportive communities can help stop health and wellbeing problems in their tracks, and make it easier to spot vulnerable students. In the US, some universities provide so-called ‘living learning communities’ where students choose to live with others with a similar outlook, whether grouped by type of student (for example, those transferring from another institution), academic major or by interest (such as entrepreneurship). Students typically enrol on courses specific to their community as part of their wider studies.

In the UK we haven’t gone down that route, but community building is still a major part of successful housing, with many housing providers running events to help create communities. Gledhill says, “Intelligent use of technology to manage events can help include those students who are on the margins – for example, those who are not 18, not white middle-class, international students or those who don’t drink.” As well as this function, StarRez provides student housing software that enables anyone to raise a concern about a student. This kind of software can also ensure accurate tracking of incidents, not just on university ground but in student accommodation from a rowdy party to an aggressive argument. It recognises that the first port of call for student wellbeing may be untypical: security guards; resident assistants; part time student hall managers.

However, there are still concerns about using student without their consent even though the students are leaving these footprints anyway. When students accept that some sharing of this data is for their own good – for example, to trigger a check from staff in event of sustained non-attendance at residence events – students may by more likely to allow universities to use their social data in the same way as they tap learning analytics.

Getting students involved is critical for the success of health and wellbeing campaigns. Liberty Living’s housing provision for the University of Central Lancashire recently won a students’ union award for its significant contribution to the experience of their tenants. It’s the little things that matter: staff at the residence allow students to contact student finance using their own phones. They’ve also consulted students on how to improve and decorate the residence, as well as organising activities and events to celebrate global holidays.  

Intelligent use of technology to manage events can help include those students who are on the margins – for example, those who are not 18, not white middle-class, international students or those who don’t drink

Sharing resources 

Partnering with voluntary organisations can also create win-wins. NUS Women’s Campaign and Rape Crisis have teamed up to launch the Stand By Me Campaign. In order to improve access to rape services both on and off campus, the NUS is working with selected students’ unions to help build a toolkit so they can work with their local rape crisis centres to create partnership agreements with the aim of sharing resources and developing joint services, pathways and activities. Susuana Amoah, NUS Women’s Officer, explains: “We are facing a national crisis of sexual assault on campus. Universities are systematically flawed when it comes to reporting systems, disciplinary procedures and survivor support. It is deeply worrying that students don’t know where to turn or feel like they won’t be taken seriously if they report anything.” 

Aside from all these outreach-style activities, there are also valuable partnerships to be made within the university walls. At the University of the West of England, for example, advisory information is displayed where alcohol is for sale in both university and students union outlets, and the university has removed a drinking game from the shelves of the university shop. This whole-university approach to issues means the global message reaches students in a much more coherent way. 

Moreover, Gledhill suggests there are better ways to organise university services to ensure join-up. He says, “Some universities haven’t appreciated the importance of the link between student housing and recruitment. Housing is often lumped in with facilities – but the student support desk is in with student welfare/ services.” This is starting to change, and initiatives like the UK National Healthy Universities Network may be able to help. Established in 2006, the network advocates a ‘whole university’ approach to health and wellbeing through peer support and networking between members. At the moment there is no particular accreditation scheme which says how a university achieves such status, but interested institutions can join the network and access resources. 

Student wellbeing is a duty of care for the whole university; by looking beyond traditional areas of ownership, universities can really make a difference.

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