Reflections So Far 2020-2021 Notes

Unipol Student Homes

The UK Student Accommodation Forum- Reflections So Far 2020-2021

Thursday 3th 3rd December, 11 AM-12:15 PM

A conversation on current trends in the Student Accommodation industry - brought to you by Unipol.


Guest Speakers: Martin Blakey (CEO, Unipol), Jo Hardman (Head of Commercial Services, Lancaster University & Chair of CUBO), Ian Robertson (Director of Residential & Catering Services, University of Leeds), Stewart Moore (Chief Executive Officer, CRM Students)


Hot Topics – Students Returning in January

  • HEPI have released the latest policy note on Students’ views on the impact of Coronavirus on their Higher Education experience in 2020/21. The full document can be found here.
  • Key findings include
    • More than half of full-time undergraduate students (59%) say they are very or quite satisfied with the online learning that has replaced face-to-face teaching, up from 42% in June 2020 and 49% in March 2020.
    • More than half of students (58%)say they consider their mental health to be in a worse state since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to 14% who say their mental health is better. Just over a quarter (28%) say their mental health is the same.
    • A third of students (33%) say they currently spend all or almost all of their time in their accommodation. A further quarter (28%) say they spend most of their time in their accommodation.
  • The Government has released guidance on students returning to University for the Spring Term, and can be found in full and consulted here.
  • The household has been the main social educational unit furing the first term, more so in some cases than course groups
  • There is no mention of accommodation providers/residence life within the new Government guidance, and no consultation with these stakeholders has taken place
  • Although staggering returns according to subject area/group seems good on the surface, but this could undermine household cohesion – students returning to a household 5 weeks before anyone else could foster feelings of isolation
  • Utilising peer to peer groups to facilitate staggered returns may have been an alternative approach v
  • On rent refunds, NUS have released a statement saying students will be paying rent for properties they are being told not to live in.
  • It will be difficult to consider refunds due to staggered arrivals, and some students before/after their teaching begins – students still have the right to return to their accommodation when they choose

Jo Hardman

  • As a negative reflection, there have been absolute uncertainties from Government about returns for International students, and all the guidance has been notably late
  • A positive to reflect on is the wider recognition of the importance of accommodation in supporting the student experience
  • There have been instances of some international students being socially isolated due to cultural differences and the impacts of COVID-19 – a positive from this is that new and more sensitive approaches to communication and support for these students have been developed
  • Lancaster took the decision to not provide meals/food directly to self-catered students, instead partnering and signposting students to on-campus food outlets and supermarkets – this approach encouraged students to be self-sufficient
  • Enhanced demand for laundry services was not foreseen, but this was mitigated by successfully partnering with a local launderette
  • The pandemic has helped cut through some of the ‘red tape’ and long processes for finding solutions to issues and securing funding
  • Cross team working has massively improved, with silo working almost disappearing and focus shifting to delivery over processes
  • Staff have gone above and beyond during the pandemic, and it is important to look after them to avoid burnout

Ian Robertson

  • Not ‘closing down’ during the first lockdown worked well – allowed residences team to support students who remained in accommodation
  • A positive was making own decisions based on government guidance and interpreting this rather than waiting and asking for too many clarifications, many of which were not useful
  • Staggered arrivals went surprisingly smooth – parts of this may be adopted for future arrival periods in the coming years
  • QR Code reporting system for students who have symptoms/tested positive was hugely successful, to the point where the University allowed residences to continue to use their own separate system for tracking cases
  • The University recruited student ambassadors centrally but many of these were seconded into residences to assist with making deliveries and communicating with students – this was a key aspect that helped with managing large scale operational issues
  • Similarly to other HE institutions, a decision was taken to not directly provide meals/food to self-catered students, instead signposting to external supermarkets
  • Student behavior has been difficult to manage, particularly with regards to self-isolation
  • Government advice has been a negative – released too late, and often on a Friday evening, meaning staff have had to work extra hours and exhaust themselves to be able to meet new rules by the Monday
  • The University is still considering its own position on rent refunds and will make a decision in coming weeks
  • Future challenges – international student recruitment and how to accommodate students who’s PG courses will run from January 2021 onwards
  • Moving forward it is predicted that there will be a permanent move to a blended learning approach, and therefore Providers need to consider their Wi-Fi infrastructure and capacity

Stewart Moore

  • Experience of private providers has been markedly different to that of University accommodation providers
  • Government and their ongoing guidance has failed to take into account or consider the half a million students housed in PBSAs
  • CRM have managed no shows well, with much of the portfolio able to be re-let
  • A flexible approach to contract cancellations throughout has been well received
  • There was surprise across the private sector when Unite individually chose to adopt it’s rent refund/rent waiver approach so early in the first lockdown
  • At the beginning of the pandemic the communications between the Universities and private providers was clear and consistent – this has become more challenging as time has gone on, and materialized into less progress in improving relationships than was initially hoped for
  • There has been a mixed response and success by Universities to manage outbreaks across the sector, and in turn how they have worked with private providers to manage this
  • No huge issues with poor student behavior/mass parties in CRM developments – at the peak 200 students were self-isolating, although it is accepted that realistically this figure will be higher
  • There has been huge pressure on both student and staff wellbeing – concerns around student isolation/loneliness have increased and there has been poor information from central Government for international students
  • Staff have gone above and beyond throughout the entirety of the pandemic – their impact cannot be understated
  • The future looks rosey – CRM say 155% increase in traffic to website after the vaccine announcement. Confidence is returning to the sector and will benefit from lessons learned