In this guest piece, Neil Smith, managing director UK and Ireland at Scape, sets out how providers of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) can help to foster a sense of community post-lockdown, as Britain continues to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
A key attraction of university is not only the opportunity to delve deeper into a chosen discipline, but the chance to engage in the wider university experience. Oftentimes, it’s the first real taste of independence for students and a chance to meet others from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and countries.
However, during the pandemic, government-imposed restrictions and the shift to virtual learning meant that students have been at a loss as to how to socialise and build their own communities safely.
In the last two years, students have had to carry out their studies over online platforms such as Teams, Zoom and WebEx, with fewer opportunities to physically meet their classmates and lecturers. Even in subjects where group projects were the norm, students had far fewer opportunities to engage beyond the confines of the classroom.
In the past, the role of student accommodation has been to simply provide a comfortable bed and a desk, but in this new age, the onus has increasingly been on these providers to foster a sense of community and help students get the most out of university life.
Today’s students expect their accommodation to not only to provide a living space that looks good and provides comfort, but also one that offers a sense of community, more opportunities and a robust support system. Furthermore, while university halls often have a natural sense of community as many students will share lectures and university activities, PBSA providers must go the extra mile to create this as residents are likely to come from a diverse range of universities and degree courses.
Although life seems to slowly be returning to normal, the reality is that the outlook on Covid-19 is still very much in flux. The recent rise of the highly transmissive Omicron variant has been much-publicised, meaning that students may have to self-isolate more regularly and educational institutions may take more steps to manage the spread on campus. In the midst of all of this anxiety, it’s important for PBSA providers and universities alike to be prepared to ensure students’ wellbeing is the priority, and that they continue to feel part of a community.
As such, accommodation providers must work hard to provide students with opportunities to form meaningful connections with their peers. Offering meaningful and exciting initiatives and events encourages students to connect outside of the lecture theatre - whether in-person or virtually.
Whether it’s wellness, new skills, cookery, health or fitness, Scape works with experts from all fields to help students learn something new, connect with one another from the comfort of their rooms, and feel part of a much bigger supportive network.
Design to facilitate connection and community
Building a sense of community starts with design, such as offering spaces that function as facilitators for study alongside social activity areas. Incorporating important communal areas such as cinemas, gyms and shared kitchens encourages residents to build bonds and lifelong connections.
These spaces allow them to spend quality time together socialising, as well as engaging in regular daily activities such as cooking, studying or simply watching films together. The communal kitchens are a key hub of activity, with students from all backgrounds sharing recipes, food and experiences.
By bringing students together during these everyday rituals, they are encouraged to learn more about one another and helping them to feel part of a vibrant global community.
Shared spaces can also be used by providers to engage their residents in focus groups, feedback sessions, and brainstorming initiatives. Involving students in decision-making processes is an important way to show them that their opinions matter and to ensure that the relationship with the resident community is equal and authentic.
Caring for student wellbeing
Moving beyond physical facilities, providing avenues for managing student wellbeing and mental heath is also a vital part of creating a community in accommodation for student residents. The pandemic has exacerbated an already heightened youth mental health crisis, with students reporting feeling isolated and lonely, notwithstanding general anxieties around the future.
PBSA providers can fulfil their responsibilities to resident wellbeing by implementing safeguarding measures for residents. For example, Scape’s student app allows for our team to promptly respond to student queries and concerns as well as provide information on staying safe, building procedures, and perks such as quarantine bundles and online events.
Extending into pastoral care, the app connects students with trained counsellors and, in cases where students prefer anonymity, there is also the option to connect via Togetherall. This allows students to anonymously share their issues and also provide each other with support and advice, building on the existing student community. Student Minds, for example, encourages students and staff alike to protect and maintain their mental health.
The importance of the team
One of the key ingredients for creating a sense of community is the team that brings the building to life. These are the people that residents will meet and interact with on an everyday basis, so it is imperative that these staff members are carefully selected and residents can trust that they will be taken care of.
Members of our team are available 24/7 for anything students might need - from a chat with a friendly face to venting about the stresses of exam season. This support can help to make students feel safe and at home within the accommodation we provide.
Scape’s strong rebooking rate, and the continued strength of the PBSA sector as a whole, demonstrates how important the sense of community is to a good student experience. Creating a community within student accommodation is crucial, as it helps students to transition into the new lifestyle changes that university life brings. The pressures of managing a new academic and social environment can be daunting for most young adults, so providing a nurturing network is key.
*Neil Smith is managing director UK and Ireland at Scape