On Monday, the British Property Foundation (BPF) held a panel discussion about wellbeing in student accommodation, the effect of increased awareness about mental health on student accommodation providers and the roles of both public and private organisations within the sector.

David Tymms, Commercial Director of iQ Student Accommodation and Chair of the BPF Student Accommodation Committee, noted that the number of students reporting mental health issues has risen considerably in recent years. During broadly the same period, the growth in provision of student accommodation has primarily been in the private sector. It is not surprising therefore that ANUK/Unipol have launched a consultation on a proposal to add a new section to The National Code of Standards for Larger Developments requiring minimum wellbeing standards in purpose built student accommodation with implementation envisaged in January 2020.

The recently published Student Wellbeing In Purpose-Built Student Accommodation guide, produced by the BPF with a consortium of interested parties within the sector including iQ Student Accommodation, Unite Students, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Department of Education was celebrated as a useful toolkit for those within the sector wishing to consider, evaluate and improve their own health and wellbeing policies.

The roles of student accommodation staff and the NHS

John de Pury, Assistant Director of Policy at Universities UK, discussed student accommodation providers’ key role in students’ mental health and noted that this would ideally supplement and support the services provided by the NHS. It was noted that the chronic under funding of mental health services has perhaps increased the importance of an integrated approach between student accommodation providers and public health services.

Jenny Shaw from Unite Students noted that student accommodation staff are often first responders to both major and minor incidents. The panel discussed the importance of training for such staff and having a clear framework in place to allow appropriate escalation. Collaboration and a close partnership with universities are crucial in putting in place such a framework. There must also be a clear support network which students trust and use with the confidence that their complaints are taken seriously. 

It is important to note that a student accommodation provider is under a common law duty of care and it will be judged by the standards of an ordinary and competent provider. Where a provider holds itself out as delivering a higher or more complex standard of service, the duty of care owed will be similarly higher or complex. It is important therefore for a student accommodation provider to be mindful of the types of services it offers.

Student accommodation providers must also consider their obligations in the context of the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Consent to share a student’s data with the appropriate parties can be obtained at the point of entering into a tenancy or other occupational agreement, but it is important that the student is made fully aware that such consent can be withdrawn at any time. Health data is a special category within the GDPR and specific rules apply to such data.

The student journey 

The panel discussed various points in a student’s journey, from receiving confirmation of their place at university to revising for their final examinations. By preparing for common scenarios students with mental health issues may experience, Jenny Shaw noted that, student accommodation providers and universities can be proactive and have a plan in place to effectively support affected students. The panel agreed that though there are traditionally certain pinch points during a student’s university life, this is not necessarily the same for every student and therefore a broader framework needs to be put in place.

The diversity of the student population and each individual’s journey should be considered when student accommodation providers and universities consider students’ wellbeing. Integration between students coupled with an understanding of individual needs is essential in building a supportive community. Students with physical impairments for example, noted Eva Crossan Jory from the NUS, should not be segregated from the rest of their cohort and efforts should be made to ensure that they are properly integrated.

Good practice

Maintaining good working partnerships with key stakeholders is vital to ensuring good practice when it comes to wellbeing in student accommodation. Jenny Shaw noted that schemes where universities and student accommodation providers work well together have had success in this space. Partnerships with other organisations such as Nightline have also helped student accommodation providers encourage discussion amongst their clients, the student population, about mental health issues and this has had a positive effect on establishing a supportive community.

Kelly-Anne Watson from Unipol noted that the push to regulate wellbeing standards in student accommodation is particularly important given the wide range of providers of student accommodation in the private sector. Whereas larger institutions are more likely to have wellbeing policies in place, smaller providers may not and as a result may be failing to meet what would generally be considered minimum standards.

Though the panel agreed that minimum standards are important as a guideline, it was noted that formalising and assessing wellbeing standards could lead to certain providers carrying out a “tick box exercise” where in fact the focus should be on providing a safe and nurturing environment for young people to study, socialise and grow. John de Pury acknowledged that complying with good practice in respect of mental health and wellbeing could result in increased costs for student accommodation providers but emphasised that this should nevertheless be a fundamental consideration for the continuing success of businesses in this sector.