Eliot Simpson was hoping for an active few weeks this summer, completing his sports business studies degree before a graduation ceremony in Wembley Stadium and a job in events management. Instead, coronavirus left him locked down in lodgings in north-west London with a dissertation to complete and future prospects far less certain.
“It’s very difficult to be a university student at the moment,” he says. “I am concerned about family, friends and health. We are expected to produce high-quality work when there’s a pandemic going on. The stress of it all is definitely apparent.”
Such pressures and changes to normal practices will be shared by many more students and their families in the coming weeks. Those already at university are contemplating the difficulties of return for the new academic year and, as thousands of students collected their A-level results this week, a new cohort is making final decisions on whether and where to study.
While the pandemic restricted Simpson’s ability even to use the communal areas in his building, he was able to turn to online support and regular quizzes, bingo and art sessions arranged by Scape, the company that owns his accommodation. “It’s been a massive help, giving us a bit of structure, something to distract and entertain,” he says.
More than half of students live in university-owned lodgings or small-scale house and flat shares. But Simpson is one of a growing number who have moved into privately managed purpose-built accommodation.
Last year, the sector accounted for more than 660,000 student bedrooms; and many of the operators are placing an increasing focus on the mental health and wellbeing of its student tenants — a challenge that has been made much more complicated by the arrival of Covid-19.
“Mental health has always been there, but now with the amount of uncertainty in all our lives and having to think on your feet all the time, it’s more challenging,” says Tom Ward, Scape’s co-founder, who says bookings are down 20 per cent on this time last year.
His staff are going online with face-to-face activities from check-in to social events, stepping up cleaning and adding one-way systems in their buildings.
Rebecca O’Hare, head of partnerships at StudentFirst, a student-accommodation advisory firm, says that housing operators are beginning to supplement the health and wellbeing services offered on campuses.
“Gone are the days when you just built a high-rise and crammed people in. A few years back, one or two operators ran programmes that aimed to build a sense of community. Now they are all trying to differentiate. If you are not doing something, you have become a minority.”
For many students and their families looking for accommodation, notably from other countries, proximity to the institution may be uppermost in their selection, followed by — for those with the budget — some degree of comfort. Yet there is a growing realisation of the importance of other factors that renters should consider to support wellbeing.
“Students experience isolation, homesickness, midterm blues, the pressures of finance and study,” says Ben Morley, of True Student, which rents living space in five British cities. “We try to put wellbeing at the heart of what we do through design and services.”
Ben Channon, head of wellbeing at Assael Architecture, says his own mental-health problems caused him to rethink the influence of his profession through the environments it creates.
“The space we are in, the environment around us, the neighbourhood we live in, all have an impact on our state of mind,” he says. “If you work in a cold, damp, dark basement every day with concrete breezeblocks, no plants and no natural light, you will feel very different to being in a converted warehouse with high ceilings, colour and plants.”
One fundamental issue is daylight, the absence of which affects circadian rhythms and can cause seasonal affective disorder. He cautions that commercial pressure from developers to save money by adding an extra floor, reducing ceiling heights and shrinking the size of windows can all rebound through the negative impact on the health of occupants.
He also cites the role of colour schemes. He recommends colder and brighter hues such as blue to remain alert for working and cooking, for example, and softer, warmer ones like yellow and orange for relaxing and sleeping.
Some providers, such as Scape, which operates in the UK, Ireland and Australia, use “warm” ambient hidden lighting that bounces off walls rather than glaring and direct illumination.
Another design issue that is important to improving wellbeing is to allow the students to influence and control their surroundings rather than forcing them to adhere to set room layouts and banning personal touches.
“Making a space more welcoming and your own with plants, furnishings and photos of loved ones gives a sense of belonging and ownership of space,” says Jennifer Smith, a policy officer at Student Minds, a charity that launched a university mental-health charter at the end of last year. “It helps students feel they have a stable and secure environment.”
A broader consideration is the importance of “sleep quality”, which is widely seen as essential for wellbeing as well as effective study. Factors to consider include the location of the accommodation away from noise and danger, with soundproofing such as double-glazing and security to reassure residents over personal safety.
“Sleep hygiene” is also improved by effective curtains to block out light in the early morning, comfortable full-size beds with quality mattresses, and temperature controls.
Dan Roberts, founder of mystudenthalls.com, a website that aggregates accommodation options for students, stresses the role of other residents who generate noise fuelled by socialising and alcohol late at night. Last year, he introduced the “quieter halls” badge, which can be awarded to buildings that, among other things, have a “noise curfew”, and offer round-the-clock contact points to resolve complaints swiftly.
Beyond the bedroom, Channon says architects need to be more imaginative in using shared spaces to nudge students into social interaction and communal activities — providing they are Covid-safe.
“Thirty years ago, people had to work in libraries or a computer suite. Since the 1990s, the internet and laptops have created a world in which it’s very easy for anyone to close themselves in their room and never leave.”
Morley at True Student, which furnishes each of its halls with a centrepiece playground-style slide, emphasises the importance of shared kitchens. “Cooking together is an obvious thing people love to do, making their favourite dish. It’s a great space and a great icebreaker,” he says. “We bring in external chefs to teach our residents new skills.”
That highlights a common theme for many of the newer, purpose-built student accommodation blocks: the presence of staff on the premises to offer activities and provide support.
“Companies are now recruiting managers from the hotel sector,” says O’Hare. “They are trying to help residents to settle in, feel less isolated and be part of a loving and caring community. There are a lot of hats you have to wear: dealing with drugs, alcohol, homesickness, parenting for students from many different countries. Staff are inundated with a wealth of issues.”
“We are not developers, we are operators,” says Ward of Scape. His company has two round-the-clock staff in each of its properties, and has designed its reception areas so students must always engage with them when they enter the building or collect packages from the post room. The provider also has a full-time events manager to organise regular social events and activities.
“The biggest thing is getting students out of their room, forming friendships and networks,” says Ward.
But providers are having to rethink activities that were designed to maximise on-site socialising now that they need to minimise students’ risk of infection. Many of Scape’s services have shifted online, including yoga and meditation. It also has an app with a “wellbeing button” to make contact with staff.
In the longer term, Morley says he is exploring “smart technology” such as sensors to flag up atypical behaviours so staff can contact students. “Without becoming too Big Brother, we can know if people are in their rooms for an extended period and if they are cooking,” he says.
“My sense is that most students in times of difficulty would want help when they are distressed and less able to look after themselves.”
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There is another catch with interventions to improve wellbeing, in itself a primary driver of stress: the cost. While cheaper than many studio flats and other private rental options, the purpose-built accommodation in which most innovation has occurred tends to be more expensive than older, subsidised university residences — upwards of £150 a week in London, for instance.
But many existing buildings can incorporate changes at modest cost and improvements to how they are managed. As Channon argues: “We need to think about long-term value rather than initial cost. The knock-on impact on society and government could be huge.” If that applies to developers, it is relevant for accommodation providers, universities and students too.
How universities are trying to ensure a Covid-safe environment
Leo Brown, who is hoping to study computer science at the University of York in September, believes the risks posed by coronavirus are less significant than the potential disruption of deferring for another year, writes Chris Allnutt.
Brown plans to live in York’s halls of residence, where single rooms cost between £99 and £196 a week, including utilities. The university has promised a range of measures to ensure a safe environment for students next term, including implementing physical distancing in communal areas and extra cleaning.
Students within a single flat will be considered part of a “support bubble”, the university says, so they will not need to socially distance.
The only problem, Brown says, is if someone within his bubble fails to adhere to distancing rules outside. “But if I just take normal precautions I feel I will be fine, and even if I do get ill I won’t be spreading it to my family.”
For many prospective students, university campuses offer a chance to socially distance from older and more vulnerable relatives at home.
“None of my friends have planned to defer,” Brown says, “mostly because they want to get out of their parents’ houses.”
Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor
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