University friends: By chance or by design?

Bristol University student accommodation Image copyright Bristol University
Image caption Bristol University aims for diverse student communities

Students often end up making lifelong friendships with the fellow "freshers" they find themselves placed next to in their accommodation - but what determines who lives along side each other?

BBC research using freedom of information (FOI) laws has revealed some universities have perhaps surprising policies on how rooms are allocated.

One important educational benefit of going to university is learning to mix with, and getting to know, a more diverse range of people with different life experiences.

On the other hand, starting university can be a stressful event made easier if the students are surrounded by the kind of people they are familiar with, or likely to get on with.

Both are valid considerations, but they can be conflicting priorities, and different institutions resolve this dilemma in different ways.

One of the most explicit policies promoting social integration is at Bristol University, which aspires "to create diverse, balanced communities within the residences with particular reference to nationality, gender, faculty, school type".

'Less homesick'

It therefore adopts a system of percentage targets for each category of residence.

The university stresses it is committed to creating balanced communities to reflect the overall profile of the student population.

Similarly, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen states: "The allocation team will adopt a policy of integration regarding cultural diversity and religious beliefs."

King's College, London, seeks "to achieve, wherever possible and based on availability, a balanced mix between gender and nationality to reflect the diversity students favour".

Chichester seeks to have "balanced communities" with mixed backgrounds and ages, while Lancaster says it tries "to avoid homogenous groups in one area".

But there are other universities which appear to give more priority to grouping "freshers" with various similar characteristics, to ease their transition into university life.

In some cases, universities ask students for considerable detail about their personalities - for example are they "reserved" or "outgoing"?

What are their lifestyle preferences? This ranges from drinking and smoking, to tidiness and how early they get up.

Hobbies and interests, such as music, clubbing, cookery or sport also come into play.

Warwick, for example, tries to match students with similar hobbies, on the basis that "for first-years this can break the ice and help them to settle down and feel less homesick".

Strathclyde takes matching leisure interests into account and says: "We would try to place tidy people together. We would avoid placing morning and night people together as their sleep patterns would clash."

Alcohol-free dorms

Bedford's FOI reply to us included promotional material for a specialised commercial algorithm it employs using personality and lifestyle factors.

This asserts it "predicts the relative 'compatibility' of combinations of residents" and claims it leads to fewer complaints, lower levels of conflict and a better sense of community.

Numerous institutions (including Canterbury Christ Church, Cardiff Met, Exeter, Reading, West of England, Winchester, York) have a policy of grouping together students who state a preference for a quiet environment and/or alcohol-free area.

Of the 100 universities from which the BBC received useful information about their accommodation policies, 17 allow this choice for alcohol-free and 39 for quiet areas.

The National Union of Students supports students having this choice. Its vice-president Eva Crossan Jory says: "It's good for students to have these options. Our view is that accommodation should be centred on what students want."

'Secure'

A few universities, such as Keele, Liverpool and Sunderland, offer friendship groups who come to university together, the chance to book rooms together.

But in contrast West of England says friends are "not generally housed together" as this would affect the social dynamics of residences.

Image copyright Getty Images

Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge has a policy of not putting students from the same school together "to broaden the circle of fellow-students that they will come into contact with".

Most institutions have some single-gender flats for those who prefer that.

Sheffield offers some accommodation specifically for LGBT students who would like this in order to "feel secure".

A few group together students who eat a vegetarian, halal or kosher diet.

The National Union of Students is unhappy about a lack of accessible rooms on some campuses, which limit accommodation choices for disabled students.

Many universities, including East Anglia, Essex, Keele, Kent, Oxford Brookes, Sunderland, Winchester and Worcester, state they specifically try to mix British and international students from various countries.

In contrast, East London plans to have a predominantly international hall, and Glyndwr will locate together students from the same country.

'Segregation'

Many universities have a range of cost bands for different qualities of accommodation, from which students pick or set an upper spending limit. This inevitably tends to promote grouping by social class, even if that is not the intention.

"Within each university there tends to be a pecking order of where students live", says Professor Harriet Bradley, a sociologist at the University of the West of England, who studies the impact of higher education on social mobility.

"Students themselves are very aware of this segregation".

Universities have discretion over how to allocate rooms within each cost band.

Professor Bradley believes they should try to mix social classes, possibly using home postcodes as the best practical indicator of class.

"Friendship is important," she adds. "Getting your first job is often dependent on knowing the right people".

Image copyright Getty Images

Many policies state they group students by similar age.

This often means separating somewhat older new undergraduates (say over-21s).

But where it means separating 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds, it frequently involves splitting those who did or those who did not have a gap year prior to starting university.

Taking a year off may well affect the students' level of maturity, but can also be linked to social class.

In a few universities, such as Greenwich, Northumbria and Nottingham Trent, the accommodation service does not allocate rooms centrally, but lets incoming students book specific rooms themselves online, choosing from those still available.

This system would allow first-year students who already know each other to room together.

All these issues arise from the British tradition of what are sometimes called "boarding universities", where most students are not staying in the family home - a contrast to many other countries.

The allocation of student accommodation is an important and long-lasting social force in Britain, but one which appears largely unresearched. "It is a difficult and neglected topic", says Professor Bradley,

Research by Patrick Cowling.

  • You can follow Martin Rosenbaum on Twitter as @rosenbaum6