Transitioning to University in the UK - How can PBSA providers play their part?
Rebecca O'Hare, September 2019
As A level results become a distant memory and the clearing process comes to an end, student housing professionals up and down the country are busy preparing for the arrival of thousands of eager and nervous new students. This includes individuals aiming to fill the 627,000 plus purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) beds in the UK. Preparing for and welcoming those students is no mean feat. It can be physically and mentally exhausting, considered a rite of passage for those in the profession and a necessary part of helping residents to settle in and start their year on a positive note.
Historically, attitudes amongst university faculty were, that if students could not succeed independently at university, they were not deserving of a place (Hunter, Murray and Moore, 2007). However, in recent years, as government focus has shifted towards retention and attrition rates, the subsequent challenges new students now face and the reasons they decide to withdraw has placed a lens on how students transition into Higher Education (HE). The methods by which universities and their subsequent departments support an increasingly diverse cohort of students are under scrutiny and appropriate support and induction measures which ensure the transition to university is smooth have become a necessity.
A whole institution approach
Yorke and Thomas (2003) indicated that a positive whole-institution approach and response was necessary in order to “maximise the success" of all students. Potential success factors identified included the notion that the atmosphere of an institution should be perceived as “friendly” and importantly, there is “an emphasis on support leading up to, and during the critically important first-year of study.” Furthermore, approaches for improving retention most widely recommended during the early stages of commencing university also focus on providing an extended induction period.
As a result, helping to entrench new students into university life via interventionist or scheduled methods such as welcome talks, social events or longer induction weeks has become the norm. Each with the intention of reducing the feeling of overwhelm, ensuring students feel part of a supportive community, their learning is enhanced, they are retained during the period of transition and individual university attrition rates are not negatively affected (Palmer, O’Kane and Owens, 2009).
How can PBSA play a role?
Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research which outlines whether specifically, PBSA has the capacity to contribute to student success by playing a pivotal role in the process of transition to university. While Yorke and Thomas advocated for a whole university approach in 2003, the inclusion of PBSA partnerships was not considered. In fact, by today's standards, PBSA barely existed in 2003. However, my eleven years’ experience combined with the many insightful conversations I have with colleagues in the sector, tells me it most certainly does. For the moment and until improved research becomes available, anecdotal evidence and an honest exchange of best practice and experience is what many of us rely on. My own observations, while many, are summed up in the following four recommendations:
It starts at the top
PBSA providers keen to ensure the transition to their accommodation and university itself is seamless, will have leaders who possess the unshakeable belief, knowledge and operational experience that accommodation plays an intrinsic role in the holistic well-being of all residents. They will match this with appropriate funding, recruit national and/or regional in-house student affairs expertise and will cascade this belief system to their direct reports. For these PBSA providers, it is a whole company approach, one where every department and employee has a sharp understanding of the role they play in supporting all residents at every stage of their journey. It will be supported by their board, is more than a marketing exercise and will be embedded into their culture.
Recruitment and Induction
Undertake a quick search for PBSA student facing roles and it will yield reams of vacant positions. Scan in detail and you'll notice, the advertisement focuses mainly on managing the asset. While important, in comparison to our North American colleagues, there is little which describes the responsibilities associated working with and for student residents. Position descriptions rarely spotlight the holistic requirements (community development, crisis intervention, academic advice, counselling and signposting etc) which can come as a surprise to those entering the profession for the first time and likely contributes to turnover of staff.
Given the rise in PBSA developments, operators and recruitment agencies are usually scrambling to hire the best from a shrinking talent pool. As a result, reviewing how and where from new candidates are attracted requires a rethink, less reliance on the hospitality industry and a focus on attracting talent from other sectors. In addition, the induction experience for new PBSA professionals should be given a priority status.
Instead of providing education on the operational components only, I believe it's now essential that training plans provide an overview of the UK HE landscape, insight in to the challenges faced by students, a grounding in key student affairs theories, mental health first aid training and conflict and mediation guidance as a minimum. Educating new recruits for the potential challenges we’re all too familiar with not only empowers but prepares them to positively support their residents as they transition to, through and out of their accommodation.
If you build it, they will come. Or will they?
We've seen a welcome rise in the number of PBSA's delivering their own creative approaches to ensuring students transition well. However, there remains the belief among the inexperienced that allocating funds to res life/student experience programming will result in residents turning up in droves. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Successful programs are well researched and informed by students, impeccably organised, are underpinned by academic theory and importantly, are delivered by passionate, well informed individuals. They are created in tandem with the student journey and are appropriate to the demographic of a property.
It is the determination and commitment of those who create and deliver meaningful methods for building community in their properties who succeed at engaging residents. It's more than a calendar of events or a well-placed poster, it's a love and understanding of the all components required. Day in, day out, the building of community requires meaningful action and the skill of persistence.
Collaboration not competition
If you consider on-campus partnership beds as 'private sector' beds, the private sector controls more than half of the supply in the market. As a result, it is not important, but rather vital that PBSA providers support universities and their departments to achieve their transition objectives. This could be collaborating on a range of students' union initiatives, contributing financially to resident life departmental budgets, offering the use of social spaces for free or working together to ensure activity is appropriately timed and does not risk overwhelming students.
Collaboration is not reserved for PBSA providers with hard or soft nomination agreements and partnerships in place. Direct let buildings and their teams should be encouraged to reach out to key university stakeholders and form mutually beneficial relationships. Consider the exciting opportunities that may arise when well thought out transition experiences are created by working together and pooling resources.
The above points are not an exhaustive list and individually can be analysed and investigated in further detail. There will be operators who do not perceive themselves as having a role in the transitional elements of the student journey. However, those keen to play their part, can perhaps begin to consider the recommendations of 'starting from the top', 'reviewing recruitment/induction procedures', 'supporting university objectives' and 'listening to their students' might imagine new possibilities for their teams and importantly, their residents too.