14/03/2014 09:53 GMT | Updated 13/05/2014 06:59 BST

Can We Help Students Find Their Perfect Match in Their Crucial First Year of Study?

Who am I going to live with?

In the excitement and uncertainty that surrounds going to university for the first time, who you'll be living with is an understandable concern. Housemates can make or break the student experience. And yet there is no consensus on how much or little universities and accommodation providers should be involved in helping students find the right match in their crucial first year of study. This was one of the topics covered in a Student Communities Round Table hosted by student accommodation provider UNITE Group in January.

Variable practice

There are several schools of thought on allocations. Some HE institutions and accommodation provides allocate students randomly, believing that living with people from different backgrounds is an important part of the learning process. Others invest time and effort in engineering communities in halls, blocks or flats. And in between there are various grades of involvement - ensuring preferences, including cultural preferences, are met; clustering students by course; ensuring international students have at least one student from their home country nearby.

What students want

UNITE carried out qualitative and quantitative research with 3,000 students and applicants during 2013 to understand in more detail how they wanted to live and who they wanted to live with.

The majority of students said they preferred to share with students in the same year of study but on a different course. The idea of being at the same stage in the student journey was clearly attractive, and different subject areas brought value. One student commented, 'The people I live with are on different courses which is nice. Sometimes we help each other study and a different perspective can be really helpful sometimes.'

However, beyond year of study, opinions vary. The research revealed six distinct clusters of students with similar preferences, each with a slightly different idea of their ideal housemates. Some were looking to share with students that were quiet, tidy and study oriented, whereas others wanted shared social priorities. International students were more likely to say that housemates should be respectful. It is in these differences that conflict - but also the potential for self-development - is rooted. One student commented that he would not have chosen to live with the people he was placed with, but 'in fact they have become some of my closest friends - finding out about people is a really important part of university life.'

What does this tell us?

This provides data-driven insight on similarities and differences, and UNITE has begun to use this knowledge to develop tools for students to meet each other before they move in, and also to support conflict management throughout the year. But there is no obvious 'best way' to handle allocations and perhaps this is a good thing. It allows institutions to design an approach that best fits the student experience that they want to provide.

An alternative approach

An idea from the US, which is starting to be discussed in the UK, is to create themed living-learning communities in a block or corridor which students can apply for. For example, students could choose to live in an eco-community, a community focused on sciences, or one primarily for ethnic minorities. While unlikely to take off in the UK in quite the same way, it does offer an interesting compromise in the allocations debate and has the benefit of being based on student choice. On the negative side, at its extreme it prevents students from mixing with peers who may challenge their core values and therefore might inhibit the development of critical thinking skills.

What next?

The jury is still out, but this doesn't mean that further understanding and insight is not of value. Far from it, a greater understanding of how the different options are experienced by students allows accommodation managers to make more informed decisions. And, crucially, it supports better management of student concerns and conflict once they are in their accommodation. Moreover, learning from practice in different countries opens up new possibilities to be explored within the UK system. Given the current focus on the all-round student experience, we believe that a greater understanding of who students want to live with is timely.