The PBSA sector must adjust to students’ needs in the post-Covid landscape

While student life has undoubtedly been impacted by the pandemic, Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) is proving to be a resilient sector.

Tom Ward - Scape
2nd June 2021
Tom Ward Scape 294

Many providers reported a surge in bookings when the road map to easing restrictions was lifted, and occupancy is expected to be high for the next academic year. The UK’s successful vaccine rollout has also played a part in promoting the return of international students: research by QS has revealed that the effectiveness and speed of the rollout mean the UK is a ‘more attractive and viable destination’ for university in September than the US, Canada, Australia and Germany. What’s more, almost a fifth of international students says their overseas study plans have been brought forward by the vaccine’s success.

The continued strength of the PBSA sector demonstrates how important the sense of community and collective wellbeing is to communal living and the overall student experience. Indeed, this is a key lesson PBSA providers have learnt over the last year: students want more than just a comfortable bed and a desk from their accommodation while at university. Many have also come to realise – though undoubtedly it was paramount before - just how fundamental the safety and wellbeing of residents is, and that it should remain top of mind in all decisions that are made. Safe in the knowledge that they are in a stable, nurturing environment, students will be empowered to grow and develop into successful, confident individuals in university life and beyond.

Going to university is a major change for many young people as they navigate independence and discover new friends, places and interests; with the added stress of the pandemic, it’s likely that some students may struggle with their mental health. Alongside the desire for accommodation that goes beyond simply being a living space, in these challenging times of social restrictions and increased isolation, students may need to reach out for additional support. Therefore, it is vital that PBSA providers adapt so they are still able to maintain resident wellbeing monitoring, even when residents are not as physically visible. Scape, for example, has launched a student app to enable team members to respond and provide adequate care for all residents. This provides all the information a student may need about their accommodation while social contact is reduced, including the benefits they have been offered such as quarantine bundles and online social events.

Moving forward, when greater social contact is allowed, this must be a key feature of a PBSA provider’s offering. Shared spaces and experiences foster feelings of belonging to a community and connectedness to others. A feeling of being part of a vibrant community means that students gain another level of support – each other – and that they have others to lean on. There are many opportunities to encourage students to interact in the nurturing environment their accommodation provides, for example through socials, communal exercise classes, workshops or focus groups for students to voice their opinions. Events and initiatives like this demonstrate that you’re providing far more than just bricks and mortar: you are providing an active community that is there for support.

The design of the building itself is another vital factor in developing a strong sense of community and wellbeing among residents; students shouldn’t spend hours or days on end alone in their rooms, so building design should promote togetherness and encourage students to reach out to each other. Communal areas should be inviting, so students will want to spend their time there. Comfortable seating and eye-catching features can maintain a relaxed, casual feel while encouraging open discussions. Shared spaces should be much more than just aesthetically pleasing, however; when social mixing is permitted, it is important that students are offered spaces that are functional for both communal studying and social activities, so they are encouraged to spend quality time together, highlighting the vibrant community that they are part of.

University life has always been about balancing study with socialising. Creating spaces that meet students’ evolving needs will only make accommodation more attractive and encourage rebooking throughout their course. Going forward, it’s sure to be the providers who continue to put students’ needs first who find the most success.

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