Paul's Blog: My Conference Experience

Paul Harris from Anglia Ruskin University talks us through his ASRA Conference experience.

Paul delivered an excellent Plenary Session titled '2 years on! COVID impact and the future' which was very well received by delegates. Read on below...

Paul's Blog

Whilst slightly nervous to be presenting to such a large and broad audience I ultimately really enjoyed it. My session started by examining what we do as a sector – which effectively is to support the learning experience and contribute to the personal and social development of students for whom residing with us might be their first experience of living away from home. I also reviewed the last two years in the context of the pandemic and speculated about some of the challenges and opportunities ahead – including issues such as affordability, widening participation, prioritising refurbishment, and the future “product”. This effectively set the scene for subsequent “mega-trends” debates later in the conference.

My session focussed on what might be next in the context of a projected increase in demand for university places. Over the last 6-7 years we have experienced a demographic dip in the number of 18-year-olds - thereby leading to a decrease in numbers entering HE, and of course demand for University places has also been impacted by the pandemic and associated travel restrictions and domestic lockdowns. We are now seeing a significant and sustained increase in the number of 18 year olds, which is likely to lead to increased demand for University places, which will probably translate in to increased demand for residential student accommodation. Linked to this, the easing of International travel restrictions means many institutions, including Anglia Ruskin University where I work, are projecting growth (over and above 2019 levels) in International student numbers. The demographic upturn is also taking place in other areas of the world – with, for example, more 18 year old Chinese students leading to speculation the number of Chinese seeking UK University places could double by 2030.

Paul Harris on stage

ASRA presents a unique opportunity and it's always nice to network and hear that colleagues from other institutions, including overseas, are facing similar challenges. I attended both keynotes, the legal update, a useful session on personal safety and the Liverpool overview – all of which were informative and enjoyable. I am trying to remember to live the “behaviour changes attitudes” ethos as presented by Billy Dixon! I enjoyed getting back to an 'in person' event, and it was nice to catch up with people I’ve known for years, as well as meet some new people. I think the timetable worked well, with reasonable length breaks to visit the exhibition and network.

Both keynotes were fantastic, but I was also lucky enough to win the “Ellis” guess the weight of the clothes competition and managed to “protect” the champagne prize. There were plenty of people keen to drink it instantly on the night of the ball (you know who you are!), but it was nice to bring it home!

I’d love to attend again, but I’ll have to “bid” alongside other colleagues for the places! I know my two ARU colleagues who attended for the first time enjoyed it this year and are keen to return, but I’m sure there might be new attendees also keen to try and come next year.

In terms of the future, and as I commented in my presentation, I think there are opportunities for growth and expansion, but also challenges for accommodation providers primarily due to affordability and demands for more flexible stays – for example, single term lets or even more hotel type stays, maybe for only a few nights per week on a recurring basis. Fundamentally, we need to also review our “product”, both in terms of the physical environment (desk size, what communal areas are used for etc.) and our “support offering” in terms of social and recreational programmes, and our round the clock support for ever increasing mental health and other support needs.

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