Lockdown Insights – Struggles and Solutions for University Security and Student Accommodation


Recently we had the pleasure of holding our first ProtectED Reflections online event. These monthly events bring together higher education professionals, academics, sector experts and ProtectED Member institutions to share their perspectives and experiences on issues impacting students' safety, security, and wellbeing. The online ProtectED Reflections will run alongside our real world ProtectED Conversations events — if and when the Covid-19 restrictions on such events have been eased.

We would like to thank everyone who joined our ProtectED Reflections event on 28 May 2020, and hope you enjoyed the insightful glimpse into the challenges our speakers have been dealing with. The focus of this first online event was the ‘Struggles and Solutions for University Security and Student Accommodation’ during lockdown and our host, Lisa Ravenscroft, ProtectED Communications Manager, was pleased to be joined by two speakers:

  • Frankie O'Connell, Head of Operations London at Unite Students — the UK's largest owner, manager and developer of purpose-built student accommodation

  • Claire Humble, Head of Campus Security at Teesside University — a ProtectED Founder Member institution.

Our speakers discussed the operational challenges that Covid-19 presents to campus security and student accommodation services, including its impact on the leadership and organisation of work to support students through this period of uncertainty. Both speakers emphasised the student-centric approach they take to their work and shared their personal and professional insights with fellow event attendees.

After a brief overview of the event from Lisa, our first speaker, Frankie O'Connell, began by providing some insight into the scale of Unite Students' operation. With some 75,000 beds across the UK, Unite is the country's leading provider of university student accommodation. She spoke of the importance to Unite of building great relationships with their university partners, to ensure they are providing students a home that contributes to their success at university. For Unite, it's about much more than providing a bed, but supporting their students through these stressful times. Frankie explained that in her role as Head of Operations in London, she is responsible for some 12,000 beds and a team of 300 employees. She went on to talk about her personal experiences during lockdown, sharing that like all of us she had experienced anxiety herself. Unite's main concern was to ensure they were looking after their students as well as possible. She emphasised how, constant communication was required with their university partners, to make sure they were up to speed with each institution's plans. Like most organisations, Unite has had to adjust their service levels to limit risk within their buildings and teams in line with government guidance. For Frankie, as with many other of the attendees, this has meant working from home and working primarily digitally, online.

Frankie went on to speak about some of the measures Unite put in place to keep their students safe and supported. She told us how early on they allowed students to terminate their accommodation contracts for the rest of the academic year — which with the added pressures on students during lockdown, must have been a relief for them. Frankie explained how Unite also increased the level of welfare provision available to ensure those students unable to go home for lockdown were well supported. Unite quickly recognised the potential for increased vulnerability within their remaining student population. Frankie also explained the measures Unite put in place to keep their colleagues safe — for example, reducing their face-to-face desk service to a minimum to limit social interaction, and using alternative self-service methods for things like parcel delivery management. She explained they developed clear operating procedures covering what to do should there be any suspected or actual cases of infection within the Unite estate. Thankfully, so far in London, Unite have not had any confirmed cases in their student residences.

While still adjusting to the emerging landscape and change of pace, Frankie emphasised the importance of adopting an agile approach and planning appropriately. While they don't yet know what the new academic year will look like, she and her colleagues are working closely with their university partners to understand and respond to their needs. Frankie provided some wonderful insights into what she personally has been dealing with, and the scale of the challenge Unite has faced over the past few months.

Frankie ended by emphasising that, for leadership teams, it is vital to consider the wider impact and needs of everyone they deal with, because everyone is impacted by Covid-19, both personally and professionally. Compassion, empathy and understanding as leadership qualities need to be carefully balanced with pragmatism, clarity, direction and consistency, so that students and staff teams can pull through this challenging period.

Lisa then introduced Claire Humble, Head of Security at Teesside University, who gave us a glimpse into how she and her team are looking after the campus, students remaining in residence and their own health at Teesside University.

Claire spoke about how, as the university campus was locked down and students went home, she and her colleagues had the task of locating the students who were still in their residences and making sure that none of them were ill or in need of assistance. It took time to work out just how many students remained on campus and they had to use various forms of communication to establish numbers — eventually finding that they still had over 450 students in university halls of residence.

Claire told us how one of the main forms of communication they utilised was the 'student portal' — an online facility that allowed her team to speak to and receive answers from students. On a positive note, she mentioned that they had received some great feedback from the remaining students that they were helping on campus.

Claire went on to speak about how they have kept the campus safe during lockdown and maintained social distancing. Her number one priority was ensuring her team's welfare — making sure they were only on campus when necessary and dealing with staff sickness and absences while still offering all the services and support to students that they normally would. Claire told us how her security team made best use of their campus technologies, using CCTV, motion detectors, tannoy systems and horns to great effect, as both communication devices and deterrents. These systems contribute to Claire's team being able to maintain as full situational awareness as possible, helping to protect them, university staff and the students.

Their experience has made Teesside look at existing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and risk more closely, adopting a holistic approach that enables them to remain agile and explore new ways of working as the situation changes.

Claire told us that, as always, her team have conducted themselves with the values she has instilled in them: "Professionalism; respect; integrity and honesty; motivation, empathy; and valuing diversity". Her belief is that, above everything, her team needs to be cared for and feel cared for. They are working on the front line during a pandemic — their mental and physical health is important. CPNI risk assessments need to be in place and built into SOPs to ensure they are a priority.

Claire discussed some improvements we can all look at making to improve campus security, including properly assessing the CCTV we have in place, as this is essential to the security of the campus. We can also utilise up-to-date technologies such as SafeZone from CriticalArc, which helps track and communicate with students and staff, and provides the security team greater situational awareness.

Finally, Claire suggested that her experience in the crisis revealed an opportunity to 'rebrand' university security services and evolve beyond historical stereotypes — so security teams might not simply be seen as 'campus police', but as having more to offer and being recognised as an asset for student and staff recruitment and retention. In an environment where, more than ever, universities are fighting to attract and retain UK and international students, the safety, security and quality of the campus experience can influence the decision of prospective students — and their parents.

After Claire and Frankie’s informative talks, Lisa took several questions from attendees. These covered everything from the policing of social distancing on campus to the options being explored for alternative student accommodation for international students. The group went on to discuss what the future might hold for open days and the potential of virtual campus tours. It will be very interesting to see the measures different institutions put in place to enable the safe recruitment and education of students through the remainder of this academic year and into the next.

We would like to thank Frankie and Claire very much for taking the time to share their observations and insight into some difficult issues. They kindly provided us a fascinating look into their professional and personal experiences working through the lockdown period, and we appreciate the support they give to ProtectED. We hope this event gave all who attended both inspiration and advice that is transferable into their own work.

We would love you to join us for our next ProtectED Reflections event, which will be held on Thursday 25 June at 11.00 BST, and is entitled:

Minding the Student Mind -Student mental health support challenges and changes during lockdown—and beyond

This event will focus on another aspect of the ProtectED Code of Practice – Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. We know that this is a subject at the forefront of many people's minds as we transition out of lockdown.

Confirmed speakers at this event are:

  • Lisa Bayliss-Pratt – Chief Nurse at Health Education England (HEE), and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Coventry University – a ProtectED Founder Member

  • Nick Bennett – Co-Founder & Co-CEO at Fika. The Mental Fitness Platform

Lisa and Nick will be discussing the structures and practices they are putting in place to support student and staff mental health in this time of Covid-19. As well as speaking about their current responses during the lockdown, they will discuss the impact of the crisis on future practice, and what changes they envision for future student and staff support provision.

ProtectED Member institutions, those working or studying within the HE sector, and anyone with an interest in furthering the conversation on supporting student safety, security and wellbeing, are very welcome to attend – save the date!

Look out for updates via our blog, social media channels, and the ProtectED Review newsletter.

For more information, please contact Lisa at l.ravenscroft@Protect-ED.org

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