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Some university places may be hard to find this year, but a room in halls shouldn’t be

  • 10 September 2020
  • By David Tymms

This blog was kindly contributed by David Tymms, Chair of the British Property Federation Student Accommodation Committee ,Commercial Director at iQ Student Accommodation and formerly, Director of Residential Services, LSE. This article has been written in a personal capacity.

As the Department for Education’s (DfE) and Ofqual’s A-Level omni-shambles continues to unfold and university admissions departments wrestle with melting phone lines and email in-boxes driven by thousands of students seeking to understand their options post Centre Assessment Grades (CAG’s), one bright spot should be the availability of purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) for the 2020/21 session.

The UK is almost unique in a European tertiary education context in the volume of students who choose not to live at home. HEPI has written extensively on this subject in the recent past in both Homeward Bound: Defining, understanding and aiding ‘commuter students’ and in Why do so many UK students live away from home and why does it matter?. We are all familiar with the rite of passage tradition that going to university and leaving home remains for British students.

The Numbers

The most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data available indicates 510,000 students live in either university owned or private PBSA, 27 per cent of total full-time students, but this is almost certainly under-stated due to the way the data is collected. There is currently no single ‘go to’ record for the number of PBSA beds in the UK but the sector is widely regarded as providing circa 650,000 spaces with around 50 per cent of those in private hands. This year alone, a further 24,060 beds are projected to open (ANUK National Code Summary of Summer Openings 2020), the impact of COVID-19 on the construction industry and a few late deliveries notwithstanding.

Where university capital has been scarce and focused on core estate, the private sector has stepped in, investing billions since Unite plc came onto the scene in the 1990’s.

Many of these private developments are of course closely connected to their local universities via a variety of structures designed to suit that institution’s priorities, balance sheet and risk appetite. These range from the 100+ year deal between Reading University and Universities Partnerships Programme (UPP) to light touch, short term, ‘nomination’ and referral agreements which see universities working in more arm’s length partnerships for as little as one year.

Why PBSA is Good

Despite the undoubted benefits private PBSA has brought to UK higher education in terms of supporting university growth, improving housing standards, city centre regeneration, releasing local housing for families, providing employment and so on, it has often been subject to both uninformed and unfounded criticism. PBSA is well regulated and generally owned and operated by quoted companies, pension funds and large-scale investors – many of whom rebated millions of pounds to students in rent waivers through COVID-19. These ownership structures place a high degree of importance on health and safety and regulatory compliance as their reputations with universities, students and multiple stakeholders including their lenders depend upon it. Most buy to let owners of student houses are private individuals who lack the motivation and expertise to provide similar standards and COVID-19 rent refunds were rare. The Alexei Sayle landlord in the Young Ones is sadly still alive and kicking.

This gives the UK a significant advantage over, say, France where international students face huge barriers in trying to source appropriate accommodation remotely, no matter how good the institution. UK PBSA operators run slick online platforms and rooms can be booked with a few clicks. Competition is fierce further driving innovation and quality.

So, What is the Outlook this Year?

The widely predicted drop-off in international students, especially taught postgraduates, is likely to see the Russell Group towns and cities in particular having excellent levels of PBSA available. While students from China, Malaysia and elsewhere rightly ponder their options, factoring such complexities as visa processing delays, scarce and expensive flight options, quarantine on arrival, local lockdowns and blended learning programmes which may not require them on campus, domestic undergraduates can pick and choose the rooms these students would have occupied. Cities like London, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester and Edinburgh, where competition for PBSA beds has traditionally been fierce, are projected to have hundreds of vacancies. Rent reductions are also being seen in many locations as wealthier international students fail to materialise.

Yes, some markets will be tight and Exeter for example is anecdotally reported to be ‘full’ but I have felt compelled to write this blog by some of the more hysterical commentary on the lack of accommodation around. Knight Frank reported on A-Level results day that roughly 30 per cent of private PBSA remained unlet, a substantially higher number than at the same point last year.

Universities, students and parents should pause and have a look at the PBSA options out there – they might just be surprised by how much choice they still have. Good things do sometimes come to those who wait.

2 comments

  1. Gordon Dent says:

    No mention of cost anywhere.
    My daughter was in PBSA for the first few months of her second year. Fortunately, a room became available in university accommodation part-way through the first semester, so she was able to move and save herself several thousand pounds.
    The fact that PBSA exists does not mean that students can afford it. If there is no affordable accommodation, there is, in effect, no accommodation. So yes: some universities are “full”.
    This reply has been written in a personal capacity.

  2. David Tymms says:

    Thanks for your feedback Gordon. Affordability is rightly a focus for policy makers, university providers and private providers. However, research by Cushman and Wakefield shows that there is in fact very little difference in average rents for en suite rooms between uni and private PBSA at less than £2 pw, albeit private provider contract lengths tend to be longer. Of course, local differences may be much more significant reflecting a range of factors.

    Many university halls also have good availability this year reflecting the extraordinary times we are in.

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