Tag: students

Freshers: How to choose the best options for your student accommodation


For Hasnat Afzal it’s a no brainer.

“I think moving away from home is a huge part of the university experience,” says the 19-year-old pharmaceutical science student from Peterborough, who has just completed his first year at Liverpool John Moores university.

“By making up your own rules away from home, you have a massive sense of independence.”

Stark choices

But many students going up to university this autumn face a stark choice: home or away.

Increased tuition fees and the effect of inflation on family budgets has left many would-be undergraduates considering a university closer to home – maybe even living with their parents.

Pete Mercer, Vice-President of the National Union of Students (NUS), says: “Whilst family commitments, work or other things can make not moving away to study attractive for some students, no-one should have to make the decision of where, and sometimes what, they study based on financial considerations rather than their ambitions or personal circumstances.”

Emyr Williams, Lecturer in Psychology at Glyndwr University, North Wales, agrees. “Exposure to new challenges, to new people, and to new opinions can provide greater independence in the real world,” he says.

“When students remain at home for financial reasons, they limit their opportunity to grow and to develop, and ultimately to gain the independence from the familial home.”

But while May 2012 figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) indicate the number of total applicants for all courses at UK universities is down to 597,473, a 7.7% reduction on the previous May, research shows distance travelled to study is relatively unchanged.

The number of students who travelled less than 24 miles to attend university (UK-domiciles only) actually fell by 0.6% in 2011 to 41.3% of all university acceptances.

The number travelling over 175 miles rose 3.3% for the same period.

Student life

Nevertheless, universities are making increasing efforts to make feel local-born students part of campus life.

For example, the University of Dundee, ranked best in the UK in this year’s Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, recently completed a £200m campus upgrade and appointed a new Director of Student Operations to co-ordinate such services across the institution.

The self-contained campus, commended for its facilities, students’ union and social activities, is just a few minutes from the centre of Dundee.

“Half our student population comes from within a 50-mile radius but that doesn’t mean these students miss out on the thriving university life,” says Dr Jim McGeorge, the University Secretary.

“We have a special induction before Freshers’ Week to help local-commuting students integrate into campus life, plus we put an emphasis on pastoral support and student representation in decision-making to encourage involvement.”

Dundee was also commended for its accommodation and students who do decide to leave home this autumn will find the days of student bedsits and aging halls of residence are long gone.

The new breed of student accommodation comes with WiFi internet access, en-suite bathrooms and a short hop to the attractions of a city-centre location.

Home from home 

Specialist property investment company, Property Frontiers, currently has nine purpose-built developments in Liverpool, a city with three large universities, University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University, and a student population of over 70,000.

The latest development is a refurbishment of 19th century former paper mill with 104 en-suite student rooms, an on-site gymnasium, a media services centre and laundry facilities.

“These purpose-built units are marginally more expensive to rent than a room in a communal house – around £100-130 per week – but offer much better facilities and a great location closet to the city and universities,” says MD Ray Withers.

The rise in applications by international students, primarily prospective undergraduates from China, is having a major impact on the trend towards higher-spec students digs.

Chinese students currently make up the largest overseas student group in the UK, contributing around £2bn to the economy.

“International students are looking for higher-spec accommodation and their parents like the security of keypad entry, CCTV monitoring and a porter on duty,” adds Withers.

Jenny Phillips, a probation officer from Liverpool, has invested in six Liverpool properties, two in Arena House by the LiverpoolOne shopping centre and four in the Beacon Building by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

“As a parent, as well as investor, I’d have more confidence about safety and security issues in these new units,” she says.

“The developments are a half-way house between halls of residence and a private, multi-let property. It’s reassuring to know there’s someone there to sort out problems.”

Moving in

Hasnat has spent the last year at Arena House in Liverpool and liked it so much, he and his fellow residents created a Facebook page about their home away from home.

“I chose Liverpool for the cultural offer and the diversity the city offered,” he says.

“I liked Arena House for its cosmopolitan mix of people. The students mingled between the floors and we all felt very secure in the building.”

Now home for summer, he is missing Liverpool and university life. “It’s nice to have some home-cooked meals and get my washing done,” he says.

“But I’m longing for the banter of student life.”

* This article was first published by the Daily Telegraph in 2012 under the headline Plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Award entry: student voice on campus


* I’m entering this story in the CIPR Education Journalism Awards 2014. How do you rate my chances? Post your comments below.

Graham Nicholson sees a lot of students – but he’s no lecturer.

His brief as the Director of Student Services at the University of Dundee covers everything from new student recruitment to managing on campus student services.

Most of all, however, his job is to listen to what students say about the university. Dashing between meetings, Nicholson says:

 “There will be a student voice in more than two thirds of the meetings I attend.”

“Lots of universities engage with student feedback but, at Dundee, we are positively riddled with it – from student reps in every class to student involvement in faculty boards and senior management.”

That’s why, he suggests, the University of Dundee was voted number one in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2011.

The survey, which gathered responses from undergraduates at 105 institutions, rated Dundee first for convenient facilities, joint third for social activities and fourth for the quality of staff lectures.

“Students have a particular eye for things that really matter to students, such as the use of new technology and campus facilities,” adds Nicholson.

“When students are used to being engaged in the dialogue, then they start being proactive as well as reactive.”

Buzz word 

The student voice has become the latest craze on campus. In an era of rising fees and falling numbers, it is heralded as something of a panacea.

While the idea of harnessing student feedback has been around since research into constructivist learning in the Nineties, the feedback bandwagon has rolled into most UK campuses in recent years.

The University of Plymouth has, for example, garnered praise for its commitment to the student voice, including the Plymouth Student Opinion Panel and its “You said, we did” public relations drive to raise awareness of how the university responded to students’ views.

Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales, appointed an Executive Director for Student Experience and boosted representation levels of students on university decision-making committees.

Such measures are designed to encourage students to influence decision-making for the better. But are some of these measures just another box-ticking exercise?

Professor Philippa Levy, Deputy Chief Executive Academic at the Higher Education Authority (HEA) rejects this.

“We are at the beginning of a new phase in how we think about the student voice,” she says. “It’s clearly now being driven forward at national policy level, while individual academics are increasingly starting to recognise the benefits.”

“Used well,” she adds, “it challenges the idea of students as consumers.”

“Students may be paying for their own education but they also need to put something back in to impact positively as an agent for change.”

Not convinced 

But not all academics are convinced of the catch all solution offered by student feedback. Some feel that, in the stampede to harness the student voice, institutions are becoming preoccupied solely with the student experience, rather than focusing on the academic education.

While student feedback is valuable and issues such as “Are sports facilities clean?” and “Is the beer cheap at the student union?” are important to students, the focus needs to be better managed.

This, suggests Dr Peter Gossman, [formerly] Senior Lecturer in Education at Glyndwr University, should be considered to focus more on a critical study of students’ learning behaviour. He says:

“As lecturers, we are interested in whether learning of a particular type, such as understanding than rote memorisation, has taken place, rather than satisfaction.”

Gossman cites a tendency amongst students to express satisfaction with a forms of teaching that lead students to a relatively passive or surface style of learning.

A possible problem with student reviews of teaching is that students tend to rate highly styles that involve clear, organised delivery of content. This can be at odds with lecturers who make demands on the class to think and analyse. 

Furthermore, the reliance on the student as the singularly most worthwhile voice on campus can leave academics frustrated that their own professional input is being downgraded.

In a recent Point of View programme for BBC Radio 4, Professor Mary Beard of Newnham College, Cambridge, argued that one of the key functions of a university education is to push students beyond their immediate comfort zone in terms of learning.

Expecting them to read, reflect and comment on things they would not normally otherwise encounter may be unpopular in the tutorial room, but it’s a key element of undergraduate life. She writes:

“Dissatisfaction and discomfort have their own, important, role to play in a good university education … It is, and it’s meant to be, destabilising.”

Personal experience

In my own classes, I have implemented an expanding range of feedback exercises over the years.

One was an online Student Evaluation of Module form, which enabled students to air their views on all aspects of the course mid way through its delivery. The implied idea being to demonstrate how the lecturer is acting on such feedback and what they have done before the end of the module.

Personally, however, I found a simpler approach at classroom level to be far more effective. I once handed my latest cohort a minute paper.

The idea is to simply write down anonymously on a blank piece of paper their comments on the course, content and delivery. They then fold it over and place it on an empty desk at the front.

I read them back in my office over a coffee. The comments were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag.

”I need more than one week to finish to meet a deadline,” wrote a second-year journalism student without a hint or irony.

More useful was this. “I really liked the more practical sessions, such as the live-blogging exercise, as I can see how this will benefit me in my future career.”

Note to self: less talking, even more hands-on exercises next semester.

As a result of this exercise, I am responding to feedback, amending my teaching for the remainder of the class and, by giving students a clear voice, hopefully engendering a greater sense of personal motivation.

Good advice 

“My advice to academics,” says Graham Nicholson, “is not to make it tokenistic. Take students seriously and they have to be serious in return.”

It’s good advice. But, as academics, let’s keep the focus on our use of the student voice to improving learning – even if that impacts negatively on student satisfaction at times.

The students might even thank us for it one day.

This story was first published on the Guardian Higher Education Network website under the headline Student voice on campus: it’s about more than beer and box ticking.