No place like home? Student housing and the unspoken issues 

NTU have recently released a series of fully-funded studentships available for PhD study. This is an exciting and competitive opportunity that is open to prospective students globally.  Since one of the advertised PhD projects comes from within the Nottingham Institute of Education from a team comprising of Dr Verity Aiken, Dr Sue Dymoke and Dr Katherine Friend, we would like to discuss some of the thinking that has informed the shape and direction of our proposed PhD project. While also made timely by the start of the academic year where many of the issues related to student housing are magnified, our rationale for this PhD research is that student housing is deserving of long-lasting focus, and should be one that incorporates the changes that exist across the student housing sector in the UK.

A bit of background

As we settle into the Autumn term, it becomes easy to forget about the turbulence that often accompanies those first few weeks in October. For our students, whilst starting a new academic year and getting to grips with a new level of study and a new suite of modules represents a substantial change, there are also an array of other non-academic factors that mark the start of the academic year; one of which is student housing. First year undergraduate students may be leaving home for the first time. Second and final year students may be moving into new student housing settings. In fact, unless you are a commuting student, the chances are that the start to the academic year is a heady mix of getting back into academic studies after a break alongside dealing with moving into to a new house and getting to know new people, or learning to live with people you already know for the first time.

We don’t consider it too much of an exaggeration to say that these are monumental moments in life, and one that is deserving of much more exploration via a robust and engaging PhD study. Moving house is cited as being one of the top stressful experiences that a person encounters. For students, there is an expectation that they do this once a year in many circumstances. The process can be fraught by having to make decisions well in advance of actually taking up residency. This requires students to think ahead and make decisions about who they might want to live with and often when they haven’t known their fellow students for too long. The demand on good student housing also adds a pressure to make these decisions quickly. Often this entails settling into housing and study at the start of the academic year alongside a requirement to also commit to housing arrangements a year in advance for the following academic year.

In asking students to make quick decisions on their accommodation, on an annual basis when they are at once settling into the new academic year, they are by default being asked to make their minds up about matters that will shape the nature of student experiences under highly pressurised circumstances. Where you live, what you live in – and who with – are all significant factors that will have an important bearing on how you relax, socialise, study and feel connected to others. In other words, housing shapes your quality of life – and the term quality is used here not just to refer to how good something is but also to how it is qualitatively shaped in ways that characterise how life is subsequently encountered and the impacts of this on other areas of life.

With such a significant impact on how we experience life, it is surprising that student housing often escapes the spotlight when discussions around the student experience and wellbeing are so abound. Our proposed PhD project aims to address this gap. While often there is a focus on initial problems to do with students housing at the start of each academic year – such as undersupply or affordability– this dialogue often stops several weeks into the new semester. Yet student housing will remain a significant factor that shapes the student experience on a day-to-day basis in ways that interlock with everything that they do in relation to their university studies.

Our proposed PhD study will be mobilised with a contextual understanding that these issues are notwithstanding the ways in which the student housing sector is rapidly changing. More and more purpose-built student housing is being built and taking up more of the student housing market share. Private lettings also remain largely unregulated. Combined, students looking for accommodation are faced with a choice between either something that is specifically built for them in ways that might overlook the community needs of residents, versus accommodation that is in the community but has been made available for student living after the fact. 

Of course, there are many variables at play in all of this that the PhD project would also aim to generate a robust understanding of. Living arrangements are always tricky to get right. What might appeal to somebody might not appeal to somebody else. Additionally, not all purpose-built student accommodation is the same, and not all privately rented student houses could be deemed as being community-based. Areas range in character and resources, and buildings differ in terms of spec, comfort, design and location. Yet one commonality across all of these points is that space matters. We know this because we invest in architecture and because buying a house is one of the biggest and most important decisions of our lives. We know this because Covid19 led to lockdowns that visibilised differences in home circumstances, such as access to green space or having an adequate home-working environment. And we know this because of what our students tell us about the importance of having a decent desk to work at, a comfy chair, access to quiet space, a decent window and good enough broadband.

Want to know more?

The places in which we are housed do just that – they house everything: our stuff, our resources, our living conditions and our residential experiences. This is why we want to place these issues much more firmly on the agenda for the student experience, and to develop ways via a PhD study to theorise and understand the intersection between housing, quality of life and study in the context of a rapidly changing student housing sector. Building from our existing research in space related student issues, we are excited to be able to promote an opportunity to apply for a fully-funded PhD studentship with annual stipend. If you are enthused and intrigued by these issues as much as we are, have a look and consider if you might want to join us in our research ventures around student housing.  

The deadline for applications is Thursday 12th January 2023, 12noon. If you wish to informally discuss your interest with us, or the nature of the PhD we have outlined above, please feel free to contact one of us at Dr Verity Aiken, Dr Sue Dymoke and Dr Katherine Friend.


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