The under-realised potential of student accommodation

By Paul Harris and Jenny Shaw –

Student accommodation is a surprisingly neglected aspect of the student experience, especially in the UK. Since the 1980s it has, in national policy terms at least, been seen as simply a hygiene factor rather than an area offering the potential to add value. There is very little in modern UK research literature about the impact of accommodation on the student experience, and virtually nothing on the relationship between student accommodation and student success. This is not the case in other parts of the world, particularly the US where a number of large scale quantitative studies show interesting correlations between accommodation and positive outcomes for students. Nor was it the case 50 years ago, when the seminal Robbins Review of higher education placed an emphasis on student accommodation as an integral part of the whole university experience.

Student accommodation has the potential to influence academic success in a number of different ways, from the most fundamental needs such as sleep and personal safety, through to the positive effects of learning with and from other students. For those familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs this will come as no surprise. Humans cannot turn their attention to higher order tasks if their fundamental needs are not being met. Study, being a form of self-actualisation, comes right at the top of the hierarchy and can be affected by any of the levels that come below, many of which are in-turn strongly affected by students’ accommodation.

In December 2012, UNITE worked with popular student website ‘The Student Room’ to conduct a survey with 1,062 applicants and 525 first year students1. Respondents were studying in, or applying to UK institutions, and the characteristics of the sample were representative of the wider student and applicant populations. Of the students who responded to the survey, 72% believed that their accommodation affected their academic success. This article draws on that research to discuss the relationship between accommodation and success among students in the UK, which may offer insights to other nations.

A good living environment

Most applicants who responded to the survey took for granted that their basic needs would be met through their accommodation, whereas for some current students this had not been the case, with a consequently negative impact on their studies. Both applicants and current students talked about a good living environment which facilitates study and feels safe. Conversely, a bad living environment is distracting and may contain real or perceived threats to personal safety:

“I think if I was staying in a place where I didn’t feel secure and safe then I wouldn’t be able to fully concentrate on my studies and would be generally unhappy at the university” – Applicant

A good living environment is very much about the way students experience and respond to their setting, and this of course contains subjective as well as objective element. While it encompasses material factors such as room size, heat, light, cleanliness and location, factors linked to living with other students were most prevalent in the responses of both applicants and students. Feeling safe arose as a theme in the responses, and this reached beyond physical safety, encompassing the need to feel safe in the company of others.

Living in a student community

The majority of students in the UK do something that very few of us will do at any other time in our lives. They move away from their homes into vast, temporary communities of complete strangers. The demand for this experience is as strong as ever, with 92% of applicants in the survey expressing a preference for some kind of halls of residence.

A word that came up many times in survey responses was “happiness”, echoing another UK study which concluded that happiness with other students is important to student wellbeing in relation to their accommodation2. Living in a student community can be a double-edged sword that could cause happiness or unhappiness depending on whether other students became a support system or a source of conflict and stress.

Staying the course

The extent to which students are able to develop a supportive network of peers can be an important factor in student retention, as a number of researchers in the US3 and a recent UK4 study have concluded. Student accommodation was seen by survey respondents as an obvious opportunity to build a network that would make them feel safe, help them with their studies and provide personal support. Having to move away from home and develop such a network for themselves might also challenge students to develop their social and life skills.

“You can study together, consult one another when need be, hold discussions and motivate each other.” – Student

Some respondents believed that a halls of residence environment could be an important factor in their ability to develop these networks. For some applicants, however, this could be an area of apprehension. Moreover, a small number of students had had bad experiences living in student accommodation, experiencing bullying or isolation that negatively affected their studies and in some cases their mental health.

Learning from diversity

Living with people from different backgrounds can offer an opportunity for personal growth and learning, but conversely can challenge the ability to feel comfortable and relaxed in a student flat or corridor, even leading to social isolation.

Research in the US5 has found that interactions with diverse peers led to a number of positive outcomes for students, including enhanced critical thinking and employability skills. The Global Graduates project by the UK’s Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) underlines the importance to employers of many of the skills that can be developed through such cross-cultural interaction, such as “an ability to work collaboratively with teams of people from a range of backgrounds and countries” and “an ability to embrace multiple perspectives and challenge thinking”6.

However the US research demonstrates that these benefits do not come about simply by students from different backgrounds occupying the same space, but through purposeful interactions. This has some obvious parallels to student accommodation, suggesting that the diversity of students in a hall of residence could be a valuable learning resource, but that simply mixing students from different backgrounds across the accommodation is not enough and could lead to difficulties for some students. This is an area that would warrant further research.


Student accommodation has the power to make an impact on students’ wellbeing, academic success and employability, yet that power is not yet being fully harnessed, especially in the UK. Students in England are required to pay an increasingly significant contribution towards their tuition fees and therefore expect greater value from their student experience; yet surprisingly few institutions are developing or communicating the positive benefits of their approach to student accommodation. We believe this is an area that affords plenty of scope for further research and development, and for a sharing of research on an international basis. Students and universities can only benefit from a renewed focus on this much neglected area.

Paul Harris is the Strategy Director for UNITE Group plc. Paul has worked across a range of private and public sector industries in a variety of roles covering media relations, internal communications, branding and marketing. He was part of the team working on the corporate rebranding of Abbey and sale to Banco Santander. Senior roles at Laing O’Rourke and Smiths Group preceded a role with the South West Regional Development Agency, where he worked closely with government departments on economic development issues. Paul is also Chair of the UNITE Foundation.

Jenny Shaw is the Head of Higher Education Engagement for UNITE Group plc. She is responsible for the company’s strategy relationships with the higher education sector, and for analysing HE sector trends and developments. Jenny has spent most of her career in the HE sector, mainly in the fields of widening participation and business engagement. She has worked for the universities of Hull, York St John and Middlesex, and has provided research and consultancy to SPA, the HE Academy and the Equality Challenge Unit.

UNITE is the UK’s largest operator of purpose built student accommodation, providing homes to 42,000 students across 23 cities in England and Scotland, and working in partnership with over 60 higher education institutions.

    1. UNITE (2013) The Next Generation (
    2. Audin, K. and Barkham, M., 2003. University quality of life and learning (UNIQoLL): an approach to student well-being, satisfaction and institutional change. Journal of Further & Higher Education 27(4): 365.
    3. For example Pascarella, E. and Terenizini, T., 2005. How college affects students: A third decade of research (vol 2). Jossey-Bass.
    4. Higher Education Academy, 2012. Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change. (
    5. For example Hu, S. and Kuh, G. D., 2003. Diversity Experiences and College Student Learning and Personal Development. Journal of College Student Development 44(3): 320-334.
    6. Diamond et al., 2011. Global Graduates into Global Leaders. CIHE (

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