Community & Wellbeing

Purpose Built Student Residential Accommodation

Transformative Spaces & Places of Student Engagement
Zachery Daniel Spire PhD

is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the UCL Bartlett Global Centre for Learning Environments. His focus is on student residential accommodation, and student experience and engagement.

Imagine, we are sitting at a coffee shop in central London and I propose to take you on a quick tour through some of my ideas on purpose built student accommodation (PBSA). I start by suggesting we travel back in time to my home state of California (US), across the Atlantic to my experiences in PBSA in London, England and into the receptions of future PBSA emerging across the US, United Kingdom (UK) and Europe. I note some of my memorable experiences and reflections from my time working in and studying student residential accommodation. I note Europe where the influence of PBSA on local communities is emerging into new and exciting policy, practice and provision frameworks. I want us to explore, in our imaginations, the past, present and future of PBSA, where ‘somewhere for students to live’ reflects on some of the factors influencing quality relationships, high quality evidence based built environments and strives to contribute positively to student engagement. For me, PBSA holds the potential to be a place for staff and students to collaborate and co-create their experiences, learning, personal and shared development. PBSA is generative, having a cascading influence on students, staff, their relationships and communities. A hub for opportunities to engage students, to be our students’ transformative home away from Home.
STOP ONE: Los Angeles, California (United States)

My personal and professional experiences living and working in PBSA began as an undergraduate at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). I volunteered and worked for residence life, housing and hospitality services. I experienced first hand numerous and dynamic approaches to PBSA and providing ‘somewhere for students to live’. This went beyond a place to eat and sleep. Instead, residential communities integrated living spaces with events and educational opportunities (such as guest speakers on race relations and behavioural economics) to create a ‘place’ where staff and students co-created community[1]. At UCLA, residence life was about creating the conditions within which students could thrive academically, develop social networks and learn with and from fellow residents and staff[2]. UCLA residence life reflected institutional values, principles and beliefs towards students’ out-of- classroom life in higher education. At UCLA I began to develop my own understanding of ‘what’ PBSA meant to an institution. Namely, a place where teams of professionals and student staff work with students to co-create communities of opportunity without obligations.

STOP TWO: San Francisco Bay, California (United States)

Shortly after graduating from UCLA I headed north, to San Francisco Bay. I had got a job working for Apple and found a nice area just south of the city where I called home for a few years. Nearer my later years in San Francisco, I worked in residential education at Stanford University. In residential education I completed a number of small research projects within the department. After, I was given an opportunity to work on resident assistant (RA) training for the summer of 2010. RA training required intensive operational and logistical work. My experience left me feeling the approach to RA training at Stanford was distinct from that I had experienced at UCLA. The institution and department reflected on the significance of students’ residential environment as a place where living together implied opportunities to learn together. This reflected what the term residential education meant at Stanford. Learning didn’t just occur in formal academic environments. Rather, learning occurred across spaces and places, formal and informal, academic and non-academic, within and between groups living and working together across the institution. This extends our conceptualisation of the stated purpose and functions of PBSA in the lives of students. While aspirational, and no doubt without a number of critiques, it sets out the value and values associated with the function and purpose of student residential life within an institutions’ vision and mission for its provision of higher education. While Stanford provided a number of opportunities to develop my understanding of student residences and student engagement, equally, it raised a number of questions for me. I pursued those questions further when I moved to London to study student residential accommodation and student engagement.

I believe it is important to consistently reflect on the influence of PBSA on student engagement in higher education
STOP THREE: London, England (United Kingdom)

Stop three reflects on my study of student residential accommodation for student engagement in higher education. In exploring student residential accommodation and student engagement I encountered sub-stantial existing literature and research directly and indirectly addressing the influence of PBSA on students, institutions and the wider community. Scholars continue to reflect on the influence of student residential accommodation (i.e. PBSA, fit for purpose student residential accommodation) on student experience in higher education, institutions, towns, cities and beyond. In particular, there is a growing interest in understanding the ‘local’ factors influencing what a number of scholars have framed as a ‘global’ phenomenon (i.e. PBSA). Cases of study in the US, UK and Europe form much of the existing literature and research on student residential accommodation. As Thomsen (2008)[3] and Thomsen & Eikemo (2010)[4] alluded to in their research on student satisfaction and preference in student residential accommodation, study of PBSA (i.e. catered/non-catered, lighting, room size, shared bathing/wash facilities, private studio flats, multipurpose rooms, shops for food and cafes) is rising as competition for premium pricing and demand for PBSA is met by interest in understanding the influence of these and other various factors on students’ satisfaction and preferences for PBSA. Similarly, demand for PBSA continues as institutions compete to recruit international and domestic students looking for ‘premium’ quality residential and higher education experiences. While this has driven PBSA to diversify and develop its offerings, it has also had cascading influences on students’ expectations of PBSA. Students use of space within and outside of PBSA has flourished and altered the physical and social dynamics of numerous towns and cities. From streets, to shopping centres, regions and the movement of students within and across national borders, PBSA has become a key influencer on recruitment, retention, access and participation with and in cities and towns such as London. London is a prime example of the influence of PBSA on different areas of a city. From Highgate to King’s Cross, Brixton to Old Spitalfields, Greenwich to South Kensington, PBSA has begun to influence the integration (and disintegration) of areas within the city, rupturing our understanding of where and how students live. Thus, the buildings we build as PBSA are influencing our students’ residential and non- residential patterns of life. Students’ relationships with other residents, local areas and the wider city have become deeply influential, causing a pause, as we take a breath to understand, again and again: what is the purpose and influence of PBSA for students’ residential life?

STOP FOUR: Into some probabilities and possibilities (Europe)

Moving beyond our present experience and into the shifting landscape of Europe, I note providing students ‘somewhere to live’ was not historically a part of the provision of a university (and non- university) education in many European countries. Rather, students organised their own residential accommodation outside of the remit of the institutions. Now, in cities like Amsterdam, student demand for housing is having a seismic influence on the supply, demand and distribution of housing. One need only do a Google search using the key terms: student housing, Amsterdam, news, to realise the extent to which students’ demand for housing has outpaced the supply of student housing, and, housing more generally. As a number of scholars and commentators have noted, finding housing in the Netherlands is demanding. And, as a student, you are provided guidance but no guarantee of housing by institutions[5]. This trend of trailing supply and growing student demand appears a consistent issue, and PBSA drives the debate of where, and how, ‘somewhere for students to live’ sits in relation to the broader social and physical milieu of towns and cities throughout the European continent. Looking forward, PBSA will become a key component of housing students, I believe, for longer periods during their participation in higher education. Rather than a tool to facilitate competition and recruitment for students (i.e. first-year, short course international students), PBSA will become a necessary means of retaining students in higher education by mediating their demand for non-PBSA over lengthier periods of students’ time in higher education. With growing consideration for implementing and increasing student fees, cost of attendance in higher education throughout Europe may be on the cusp of major shifts in accessibility and participation. Thus, PBSA will become a key component for policymakers, providers, practitioners, and, local, regional, national, international and globally recruiting institutions to continue to retain students in the next five to ten years.

PBSA can be co-creative places where space, time, experiences and expectations aim towards the surfacing of our plurality, our interdependent learning, developmental nature and inform PBSA for students from our past, into the present and onward towards the future
STOP FIVE: Imagining PBSA as a transformative space and place

After a whistle-stop tour, some time to reflect on where we have been and where we imagine ourselves going. I have proposed PBSA as ’somewhere for students to live’ is a key component of our definitions and understanding of what a higher education is, and, what it means to be a student in higher education. Supply, demand and distribution of PBSA continues to be a key driver for student access, participation, recruitment and retention across local, regional, national, international and now global contexts of higher education. As such, I believe it is important to consistently reflect on the influence of PBSA on student engagement in higher education. Can PBSA generate opportunities, inspiring students rather than containing and controlling our constructions of them? Moreover, PBSA are places where divergent and often contested expectations of ‘home’ and community come into tension. Therefore, it is key to the development of PBSA and student engagement that we revisit these places with an eye towards understanding their open, dynamic and evolving nature. As we look forward, let us ask bigger and better questions about the potential for PBSA to transform our students’ experiences of ‘somewhere to live’. PBSA can be co-creative places where space, time, experiences and expectations aim towards the surfacing of our plurality, our interdependent learning, developmental nature and inform PBSA for students from our past, into the present and onward towards the future. My hope for the future of PBSA as places to generate and inspire reflective and reflexive staff, students and communities. After all, when our students leave PBSA, where and how will they carry their experiences into their own adventures and journey ‘Home’?

[1] Temple, P. (2018). Space, place and institutional effectiveness in higher education. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, p. 1-18.

[2] Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2010). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ inner lives. John Wiley & Sons.

[3] Thomsen, J. (2008). Student housing–student homes. Aspects of Student Housing Satisfaction. PhD, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Trondheim, Norway.

[4] Thomsen, J., & Eikemo, T. A. (2010). Aspects of student housing satisfaction: a quantitative study. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 25(3), p. 273-293.

[5] University of Amsterdam (2018) Electronic resource. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 04/08/2018.