It’s no secret that the quality of accommodation provided to undergraduates is extremely important to their university experience. Yet of all the responses to the Student Experience Survey, satisfaction with accommodation has consistently been ranked poorly. This year, the average rating for the accommodation composite was 5.2 out of 7, the lowest in all the categories.
However, since 2010, some universities have shown strong improvements in student satisfaction in this area, in particular the universities of Reading, Northumbria and Aston. So what are these institutions getting right, and what can others learn from their achievements?
The strongest improvement over the period is at Aston University, where satisfaction has risen from a score of 4.8 out of 7 in 2010, to 5.6 in 2016.
Alison Levey, the institution’s director of student and academic services, believes that part of the solution is providing a system where students can give direct feedback to staff within their halls.
“We have a pastoral service based within the accommodation itself, which includes a team of residence tutors who offer out-of-hours support and guidance,” she explains. “This service fits into our wider pastoral care teams of advisers, counselling and our multi-faith chaplaincy, which works to ensure that all our students enjoy their time here, particularly those who are far from home.”
It may sound blindingly obvious but Levey stresses the importance of recognising that students who are happy with their accommodation are likely to focus more on their studies. “We listen to our students and act upon their feedback. Should any issues arise, we look to resolve them in a constructive way,” she adds.
More on the 2017 Student Experience Survey
Student Experience Survey 2017: the results
Student Experience Survey 2017: methodology
Student Experience Survey 2017: analysis of the 2017 results
Student Experience Survey 2017: hear from students at the top institutions
Student Experience Survey 2017: down on the farm at Harper Adams
Student Experience Survey 2017: expectations are high for learning resources
Student Experience Survey 2017: Sheffield Union holds key to satisfaction
Student Experience Survey 2017: the shape of things to come in higher education
Acting on feedback is clearly important, but how does that translate into bricks and mortar? At the University of Reading, accommodation satisfaction has risen slowly but consistently over the past six years, from 5.5 in 2010 to 5.9 in 2016.
In December 2011, Reading signed a multimillion pound deal with the University Partnerships Programme, a leading provider of campus infrastructure and residential management services, to take over and manage its accommodation services. “We have invested more than £100 million into building new halls of residence over the past five years,” says Karen Thomas, the university’s accommodation contract management director.
“Through a long-term partnership with UPP, Reading has increased its room capacity to nearly 5,000 and totally replaced three of our halls of residence.
“We have also significantly updated other halls following feedback from residents. We now provide a range of modern accommodation types to suit all budgets and needs, including townhouses, ensuite rooms and shared flats.”
Reading’s results may also point to the importance of continually monitoring student experience: there is no room for complacency even after major overhauls have been completed.
Thomas explains that Reading has placed more emphasis on student feedback in the past few years. “We have set up a dedicated team who work with UPP to ensure feedback is acted upon,” she says. “They closely monitor standards of service delivery in the halls, ensuring that they remain high.”
The university is currently making plans to refurbish and expand another hall of residence, further increasing room capacity.
T he National Union of Students is well aware of the importance of well-run, comfortable accommodation for students, but is concerned that the move towards developer-led “luxury” buildings is leading to affordability issues for many.
Affordability is clearly a problem for London students and is reflected in the survey results. Those least satisfied with accommodation are studying in the capital, with 2016 gradings as low as 3.9 out of 7. But the NUS points out that affordability isn’t exclusive to London.
“Flashy buildings with cinemas and luxury facilities have driven up accommodation costs for students overall as the number of beds owned by the universities has reduced,” says Shelly Asquith, NUS vice-president of welfare. “We need universities to start building accommodation that they are accountable for at fair rents for all students.”
There is little evidence to show that expensive studio apartments are what students actually want, Asquith maintains. “We’ve found there’s a high demand for comfortable but cheaper accommodation with shared bathrooms,” she says. “All these students want is a decent room with a desk and communal space where they can develop friendship groups and feel part of a community.”
Northumbria University has seen student satisfaction rise from a rating of 4.9 in 2010 to 5.5 in 2016. “We are fortunate that we have a range of buildings to suit all tastes and budgets and understand that priorities differ for all students,” says accommodation manager Alastair Reekie.
The university has recently upgraded its wi-fi offering to a free 100MB service in all its accommodation buildings, which may well be more important to students than furniture specification.
Reekie says that for the past few years, the university has invested in an online booking system. “Historically students gave building preferences at the time of booking then waited several months to find out where they had been allocated,” he says. “Our online system allows students to choose the building, flat and room. It also allows them to get in touch with the accommodation team quickly through a platform they’re familiar with.”
The need to put more effort into creating a welcoming environment for first-year students is something the NUS and competitively minded university accommodation managers would agree on.
Last year saw the launch of Reading’s Your Halls for Life, a joint UPP and university scheme designed to help residents get more out of their time in halls. “The programme offers monthly opportunities for student residents to get involved with the halls’ community. So far there has been a student bake-off, trips to Oxford and Windsor, and a tutorial on how to cook on a budget,” says Thomas.
Whether these initiatives are more welcome than the double beds being offered as standard in all new refurbishment programmes at Northumbria is a moot point, but one lesson learned from the accommodation managers’ varied experience is the need to move away from a “one size fits all” strategy.
Rising fees and concerns about job prospects in a changing world have made some students rethink their priorities.
Asquith highlights an increasing trend for some students to choose universities close to their family homes so that they can avoid spending money on accommodation. “This is a concern because it totally alters the student experience,” she adds.
That experience is under pressure from many quarters, including the unknown fallout from Brexit and a resurgence of the demand that universities offer two-year degrees instead of the standard three- or four-year courses.
While the long-term planning of university accommodation is clearly difficult to predict, it seems that the need for accommodation managers to listen carefully to students’ concerns is more important than ever.