Virtual connections help students make real friendships

Resident engagement and property management software provider - Spike Global - share insights into how virtual connections help students make real friendships.

Lounge area at Nido's Clayallee student accommodation scheme - Spike Global | PBSA News
Communal lounge area at Nido Student's Clayallee student accommodation scheme.

As prospective students sit their A-levels this month with hopes set on their first choice of university, others in Year 12 are busy looking around campuses in anticipation of a September 2023 start. While teenagers and their parents will be scrutinising course prospectuses and visiting lecture halls, they will also be looking at many other aspects of the university experience on offer before making their shortlist – especially the quality of the accommodation.

By Jonny Wootten, Marketing Director, Spike Global

It used to be the case that almost all first-year students lived in halls of residences – but as student numbers have grown the situation has changed significantly. September 2019 saw a record-breaking 39% of all 18-year-olds in the UK apply to start studying, and Knight Frank’s recent Student Accommodation Survey found that only 40% of first year undergraduates now live in university halls, while 30% move into private purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), up from 22% five years ago. The remainder either live in the private rented sector or at home.

With PBSA being such a growth market, competition among providers is fierce, and they are going above and beyond in their efforts to make their residents feel as comfortable as possible – PBSA has never been as desirable, convenient, and stylish as it is right now.

But beyond the obvious requirements of space and superfast broadband, some of what students actually want – and need – is harder to quantify. While it’s relatively easy to provide soft carpets or mood lighting, what really attracts residents to a building, and keeps them there year after year, is creating a sense of community and belonging that supports their wellbeing.

In Knight Frank’s Student Accommodation Survey, ‘being able to make friends’ was rated as important or very important by 86% of first-year students, followed by 81% rating ‘organised groups or clubs to reduce loneliness and isolation’ as much-needed. Compare that with 47% who prioritised an onsite gym, 34% who thought a swimming pool was important, and 18% who wanted a cinema room and you can see just how important it is for building managers to prioritise creating a good community.

The human cost of student isolation is very real – a study by the Office for National Statistics found that over a quarter (26%) of students reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 8% of the adult population over a similar period. And not only can that lead to a miserable university experience and poor long-term mental health, loneliness has also been found to be one of the leading causes of students dropping out of academia altogether.

It may seem counter-intuitive but the solution to real-life loneliness may start online. Today’s student cohort are digital natives, having been brought up running their lives on their phones. From online banking, ordering their shopping, to managing their social lives, the way in which they participate in communities is no longer solely dictated by where they live, but where they spend their time online too. For accommodation providers and operators, technology can play an important part in allowing students to make connections within their own building and help to create that vital sense of community.

While 81% of students surveyed by Knight Frank identified organised groups or clubs as a prime way to reduce loneliness and isolation, nonetheless, they may find it difficult or even intimidating to take the first step into accessing these social activities. By utilising resident engagement portals like Spike Student, residents can begin that journey online, by finding others who share similar interests, forming their own clubs and forums, as well as finding out about the events happening around them. More than three-quarters (77%) of students said that they wanted good quality communal or social space to improve interaction within their student accommodation, and by facilitating residents to make connections online, they can then use these spaces to organise social gatherings in the physical world, breaking down the barriers of threshold anxiety.

While social interaction online can lead to rewarding real-life friendships that improve mental health, in some arenas, younger people are far happier staying online. For many students, dealing with a landlord for the first time can be a stressful experience. Nine out of ten experience some kind of issue with their accommodation, and all too often, novice renters find themselves putting up with all kinds of problems because they either don’t know how to bring them to the landlord’s attention, or, worse still, are simply too afraid to do so in case they are penalised in the future. A massive 81% of students find making phone calls to their letting agents or landlords very stressful. This means that even the smallest problems could eventually lead them to look for accommodation elsewhere.

Spike looks to actively solve this issue with the Spike Student app, as it enables residents to manage practical aspects of living (such as keeping track of rental payments, booking laundry slots, checking whether the reception has received their parcel) or report issues to their building manager, all without ever having to make a phone call. From the point of view of day-to-day lettings management, the use of apps can revolutionise communication by enabling students to log problems, make payments, and send messages in a stress-free and convenient way (even at 6am on their way home from a club…).

What’s more, when a young person moves away from home, they are likely to be unfamiliar with the surrounding area. Connecting them instantly with others in their building, as well as with local shops and services, or other details that can bring convenience to their lives, is a great way of ensuring they feel engaged from the offset. Many of Spike’s clients team up with local businesses to offer special discounts to their residents on anything from hairdressers and coffee shops, to local restaurants, all of which can be promoted to residents and driven through the Spike Student app.

Connectivity has been an essential, especially for students, for a very long time, but now there is a real opportunity to harness the internet to bring residents together, facilitate connections both digitally and in the physical world, enrich their living experience and protect their mental health. Creating these intelligent networks within student accommodation will not only foster community, but it will help residents feel comfortable and experience a sense of belonging, which ultimately will lead to full buildings and happy tenants who care for their environment. Everybody wins.