Security matters in providing safety, and a memorable higher education experience

According to research by the Scottish government published in December 2022, the number of students enrolled in a higher education qualification of some description had been increasing before the Covid-19 pandemic. This trend wasn’t just confined to Scotland either – the increase was being seen across the UK. The reasons for wanting to attend higher education are varied and students, as we all know, come from all corners of the globe, keen for the best possible experience to shape the next few years of their lives.

Safe and secure accommodation is integral to that experience, as Simon Alderson, CEO of one the UK’s fastest growing multi-service security providers, First Response Group, explores.

University is still the place to be

Student accommodation is an important topic for many families, as well as for educational institutions, as it plays a critical role in the safety and wellbeing of students. There’s no shortage to the number of factors that will sway a decision about which university to attend. Career prospects, student lifestyle, and geographical location are just three that spring to mind, as is the availability of quality purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).

For parents of younger students keen to get on and make their own way in life, safety is naturally amongst their principal concerns, not least when their son or daughter is resident on campus far from home. And for the students themselves, security – perceived and actual – is crucial in shaping the experience they will have throughout their studies.

Recent research conducted, again in Scotland where my own business First Response Group has a strong presence alongside our other operations UK-wide, found that on the whole, students were satisfied with their PBSA, and when it came to security, around 87% felt safe in their accommodation, dropping slightly to 80% in the private rented sector (PRS). Across the UK as a whole, however, the level of satisfaction with PBSA is thought to be around 69%. The Scottish findings also reveal that safety is prominent in students’ decision-making, with respondents alluding to researching crime statistics prior to making their choice in survey interviews and their experiences of being out at night or in darkness.

Understandably, one of the most pressing security concerns raised by the research centred on non-residents gaining access to a facility. With so many students and other unfamiliar faces coming and going at various points of any given day, front-desk security can be a challenge. That said, students generally appreciated measures, such as fob or swipe card entry, and the overall consensus is that security and front office staff do contribute positively to their sense of wellbeing while on site.

Anecdotally, security personnel are often seen as being integral to and representatives of the whole HE community, even in private-sector accommodation. For students returning from evening lectures or a night out, for instance, having an individual they feel they can trust as a point of contact is added reassurance. That, in turn, makes for a more positive student experience overall.

Interestingly, figures from the UK government point to a record number of UCAS applications in 2022, challenging earlier concerns within the industry that the pandemic would result in a drop in numbers. Indeed, despite the turbulence of the past decade, stretching back to the fee increase in 2012, going onto higher education is still highly appealing to the majority. All the more important, therefore, that purpose-built student accommodation is of the highest possible quality with appropriate levels of protection and security.

Implement a robust yet personal security plan

All PBSA providers should have in place a comprehensive security plan that addresses potential risks, not least crime and fire, and also which outlines rehearsed procedures for responding to emergencies. Clearly, striking the right balance between maintaining security at all hours whilst affording students the freedom to move around and socialise without encumbrance is important.

Maintaining a visible deterrence – be that through front-of-house security personnel or using marked vehicles – lessens any risks before they can be allowed to escalate, allowing students to continue to socialise freely. Should the worst happen, students can trust that the security professional at the scene can take control of the situation and implement the necessary solution, whether that is a conflict between alcohol-fuelled flatmates or preventing unauthorised access to the building when students are out at lectures. Or at night when attempted thefts are more likely.

Provide adequate staffing

Ordinarily, all PBSA providers will wish to engage regularly with their security partners to ensure sufficient staffing is in place for 24/7 coverage, including on-site personnel, and of course the specifications and deployment of appropriate technology, such as CCTV, PIR and other sensors and of course alarm systems to suit differing environments.

Encourage community building

Not unusually, the day-to-day role of a security officer who is familiar to and trusted by students can often entail moments of wellbeing and pastoral support, whether it’s a smiley face or friendly banter when heads seem unduly down during exam times or watching someone’s luggage when someone needs to nip back to their room to collect a forgotten item.   In addition, they may offer added value as training support in first aid and even in handling incidents or emergencies when they occur.

By fostering a positive community spirit and a culture of engagement with students, PBSA providers can work with their security partners to create the safest and most relaxing environments for all residents. Let’s not forget that today’s crop of soon-to-be graduates may also have significant differences in expectation than their pre-pandemic and non-lockdown peers.

A trusted partner

Bringing everything together, PBSA security has a key part in student security, and the wider student experience. As thousands of young students begin making their plans for the start of the next stage of their lives in September, making sure they have a comfortable, safe place to call home for the next three-plus years is imperative if facilities are to maintain and enhance a positive image and national reputation.  Security partners worth their salt should see themselves as key to this.

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About the Author: Michael O'Sullivan