Investing in student housing professionals

With the growth in purpose-built student accommodation comes a need for skilled staff to manage it.  Alongside university-owned accommodation and self-funded new builds, a burgeoning private sector in the UK and Europe is driving the demand for student housing professionals with the right skills, who will need opportunities to develop as the sector continues to grow.

No two days are the same for the student housing professional – it’s certainly one of the more interesting careers. The work is varied and stimulating, but also complex and demanding. This is a broad-ranging role involving conflict resolution, welfare issues, crisis intervention and managing anti-social behaviour as well as room sales, room moves, rent collection and debt chasing.  It encompasses security and health and safety, room inspections and audits, an understanding of compliance and legislation as well as customer service, handling sensitive issues and being on call for emergencies. Then there is the administration, budgeting and reporting to do alongside managing summer business and university partnerships, and recruiting new staff!

Evidence from the US shows the critical role that student housing plays in academic life. Over the last 20 years, campus housing and residence life in North America have increasingly professionalized.

Facility design has changed, standards and ethical practices have been formalised, legal guidelines have increased and a body of theory had developed around student engagement and development. Student affairs is an established academic discipline, producing research that clearly links students’ overall campus experience with rates of attrition and retention, and a positive campus housing experience with better academic results. As a result, more attention is being paid globally to students’ challenges and first-year experience, and to creating a community within student housing that fully supports their wellbeing, transition to adulthood and academic performance.

For some years already, universities and private accommodation providers in the UK and Ireland have been adopting and adapting US expertise and practice, investing in accommodation facilities, staff and residence life programmes. The historical “in at the deep end” view that left students to find their own way has changed, spurred on also by the growth in international students, many studying thousands of miles from home in cultures very different from their own.

At the same time, there has been a “marketisation” of higher education, in which institutions and residences compete increasingly for home-grown and international students.

In this changing higher education landscape, student accommodation professionals have an absolutely critical role and influence. But to create successful residential communities, they need both practical business skills and highly developed soft skills. They also need a solid theoretical foundation to underpin their experience and enable their continuing development.
While the USA has pioneered the theory and practice of student accommodation and residence life, elsewhere purpose-built student accommodation is still developing and influenced by national characteristics. This is why the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (Acuho-I) in the United States has recently rolled out joint training programmes in South Africa and Australia, and in 2019 is partnering with College and University Business Officers (CUBO) in the UK to run the first Global Housing Training Institute (GHTI) in Europe.

Taking place in November in Edinburgh, the GHTI is an intense professional development opportunity specifically for student accommodation professionals that meets the need for training at this level in Europe, as well as the UK. It develops theoretical knowledge, discusses best and next practice, and covers practical accommodation management skills. Mentoring by the International Faculty, experts in their fields, is an integral part of the Institute and the immersive programme encourages the development of a professional network.

As more student housing is built and universities and private providers seek to continually improve student accommodation and residential communities, investing in student housing professionals makes sense.