Michael Hewlett from MRG asks Jane Donachy, Associate Director of Catering, Retail and Accommodation Services and James Greenwood, Student Experience Manager at University of the Arts London (UAL) about their operational strategy and life after coronavirus lockdown.
How have you adapted the during the pandemic in order to support the students?
We have embarked on an enthusiastic well-being and digital engagement programme which we believe to be one of the leaders in the UK. The programme ranges from fitness classes and one to one wellbeing chats to more adventurous voguing masterclasses and twerk shops in true UAL style. We have received over 2000 participants so far from across the world including a student who won last week’s quiz night in Jerusalem!
The online engagement through our HallsLife platform and social media channels has increased dramatically - over 50% more engagement on many platforms. Most importantly, we have used students to create this content for us which has included; calming Spotify playlists, top indoor hobbies, best free apps, top Netflix films and online cooking classes.
We feel this has definitely reduced the sense of isolation and loneliness for students and maintained a feeling of still being connected to the University. This element of pastoral support is so essential.
Our partners Baxter Storey deserve a mention too and they have been fantastic with the preparation of isolation packs.
When do you anticipate the road to recovery will begin? Do you have a proposed moving in dates for the new academic year?
We have a planned new academic year date of the 19th October with moving in week scheduled for the first week in October. We are currently 100 applications over where we were at the same point last year so numbers are looking positive.
The key for us will be interpreting the government guidelines to ensure effective social distancing that will protect the new and returning students.
The team are undertaking extensive work currently to ensure the moving period is as seamless as possible to ensure the 1st year and returning students have a warm and supportive welcome to University life.
We are also looking at a new online pre-arrival res life programme so that students feel part of a community before they arrive and gain some sort of ‘freshers’ experience.
Do you believe that the current situation has raised the profile of student accommodation?
The recent pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of linking student accommodation needs with the wider academic aims of an institution. This will be a positive step moving forward to ensure increased collaboration. Having well-structured accommodation management teams that are well resourced will be vital moving forward.
It has certainly raised the profile of higher education as an industry and it’s vital importance to the UK’s economy.
It has been exciting to watch the various HEI’s come up with Covid-19 solutions such as the breathing apparatus and PPE innovations. The sector has really stepped up in this crisis.
Do you think the pandemic will affect the UK’s reputation as a ‘go to’ destination for overseas students?
We envisage that once the shock of the ‘new normal’ sinks in, we don’t view any change to the UK’s reputation. We are fortunate to have a globally renowned reputation for teaching excellence and we don’t foresee this changing. For specialist institutions such as UAL, the academic standing will ensure long-term stability when the social distancing requirements relax and confidence returns (especially for the overseas students).
What is the key lesson you have learned from this pandemic?
The key lesson for us has been about actively preparing and planning whilst keeping your staff and stakeholders engaged. We have found that people adapt quickly to change and if you keep users and stakeholders informed then people can cope with stressful situations and change.
It has reinforced our view that you can only ensure student experience by having a motivated and happy well trained team.
The recent pandemic will also highlight the vital importance for institutions in terms of flexibility. Flexibility both in terms of teaching methods but also in staffing and how services are provided. For our suppliers and partners too, the ones that will flourish will be those who adapt through innovation.
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