How to Have Fewer Nightmares

Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students, reflects on how we can offer adequate mental health support to students living in private accommodation.

In my current role, my accountability covers the welfare of 50,000 students from Aberdeen down to Portsmouth. I have to say this makes for some interesting dreams. Did we miss the signs? Did someone forget to escalate a concern? What’s behind that flat door? Being also a parent of teenagers, you can guess how these scenarios might play out in my unconscious mind at 3am. (Though possibly my great love of cheese doesn’t help.)

So I can only imagine what dreams might plague my counterparts in universities. They are not only held to a higher duty of care, but must also be acutely aware that their first year students are no longer all within the cosy walls of university halls, but rather out in the wilds of the private accommodation sector. It’s not only the stuff that nightmares are made of, it is a real challenge when trying to develop a whole university approach to mental health.

On the face of it the solution may seem simple: just ask the accommodation provider to direct any student experiencing difficulties to the university’s services. Then the university can have full control over the welfare of its students and the provider can go on managing the building.

This is great in theory, but doesn’t generally work that way for most of what we see.

Student mental health difficulty rarely presents itself in a neat and clear way in accommodation. The presentation is situational, and may hide behind something else: antisocial behaviour, substance misuse, noise, rent arrears, shyness, euphoria or even over-compliance.

And when the underlying issue is seen for what it is, what happens if the student refuses help or flat out won’t inform their university?

Accommodation providers have had no choice but to pull together some kind of approach to student mental health; day after day, night after night there are situations that demand attention, raise risk and need to be addressed. At the same time, we cannot offer services we’re neither qualified nor resourced to provide. It is a difficult line to walk, and to continue firefighting without some kind of framework is untenable.

With this in mind, the British Property Federation’s student accommodation committee is compiling a good practice guide. Working with higher education sector bodies, the Department for Education and legal experts, the guide will provide a legal and ethical framework, advice, guidance and self-assessment materials to help private providers improve their approach in line with nationally recognised good practice.

The Accreditation Network UK and Unipol National Code of Standards for Larger Developments has recently added clauses on student wellbeing, with more planned. This will make an adequate mental health policy an auditable standard for private purpose-built student accommodation operators.

Over time these changes should considerably improve practice across the sector and enhance the student experience. I feel confident that we will even see this reflected in retention rates.

Beyond this, the guide sets out clearly a common understanding of the potential and limitations of the role of accommodation providers in supporting student mental health. It represents a consensus on what good practice looks like, which is important in bringing consistency to the many-to-many relationships between universities and accommodation operators. This should make the whole endeavour more achievable.

It also puts universities in a position to be more demanding of their accommodation partners. In both short and long term agreements, universities can feel more confident in setting out their expectations when it comes to student mental health. In return they should get more value from their accommodation partners when it comes to achieving their university’s vision for student mental health and wellbeing.

In my workshop at the AHUA Spring Conference 2019, I invited participants to engage with the processes, practices and standards that accommodation providers can bring to the table. It was an opportunity for AHUA members to take a view on risks and opportunities, and to challenge their own thinking on what should be expected of their accommodation partners. It also gave them a chance to feed into the good practice standards as they are developing.

Most importantly, we kept our eye fixed on students themselves by working through some scenarios and looking at how, between us, we could reduce and mitigate harm.

The next few months should see some big policy strides in our national approach to student mental health. As well as the Good Practice Guide and standards outlined above, the UUK Data Sharing Task Group will publish recommendations on sharing information about students’ mental health, including with accommodation providers. The DfE Task Group on Transitions will take action to embed wellbeing into the transition to university. We will also see the next iteration of the UUK Step Change Framework, and the Universities’ Mental Health Charter later in the year.

All these initiatives, as technical as some of them they may seem, should add up to a safer and more healthy environment for students by the end of the year. Perhaps then we will all sleep easier in our beds.