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Home Sweet Home – so long as someone else is there…

  • 4 December 2020
  • By Martin Blakey

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Martin Blakey, who is the Chief Executive of Unipol Student Homes and the co-author of the recent HEPI report ‘Student Accommodation: The Facts‘ (HEPI Analytical Report 2, August 2020). He compiles the Accommodation Costs Survey, which has been running since 1967, with the National Union of Students (NUS).

The Government brought out its spring return guidance for students late on Wednesday. As Unipol runs the Government-approved National Codes for larger student developments, covering some 364,000 student tenancies, I was particularly interested in what the guidance had to say about student accommodation and the residential experience. 

It was a short read: there is no reference to accommodation within the guidance and I am not aware that anyone was consulted about the impact of the planned phased return on either accommodation providers or the students they house. 

Coincidentally, the HEPI report Students views on the impact of Coronavirus on their higher education experience in 2021/21 was released only hours later and provided the helpful context that 62% of students surveyed said they spent all or most of their time in their accommodation. (30% who did not lived mainly at home with different arrangements.) This useful finding reminds us of the realities of the first term: a lot of online teaching with many students having little to do outside of their houses, flats and halls because of tiered restrictions followed by the second set of further restrictions. Their student household has been at the very centre of their educational experience, particularly for those living in purpose-built student accommodation. 

the number of students withdrawing from their courses this year has gone down … this fits into the general impression of student housing providers that student inter-tenant friction is also down

These, mainly first-year students, have met new people within their household, self-isolated with them, supported each other and done their very best to enjoy each other’s company. Most have bonded with their co-residents. It is of interest that (according to figures from the Student Loans Company) the number of students withdrawing from their courses this year has gone down (about 5,500 students withdrew compared with 6,100 last autumn) and this fits into the general impression of student housing providers that student inter-tenant friction is also down.

It is of considerable concern that the Government has therefore chosen a course-based approach to phasing returners. Although this may be right in a purely academic context (although five weeks seems a longer time than was necessary), it could have serious implications for student households, at present the keystone of student life. This slow course-based return, if followed by students, will see some disruption to those households with many students either living alone or with only one other housemate present. This may have serious implications for student well-being, especially where students living in the higher tier restrictions will find it difficult to socialise with others outside of their household. 

Those students who have to stay in their accommodation over Christmas (those without homes to go to, international students and those with high-risk parents and relatives) will now be in a quieter and less sociable environment for much longer. The Christmas arrangements may well last for nine weeks, including the traditional post-Christmas emotional wasteland of January. This sense of isolation may well be enhanced by the lack of face-to-face teaching for many of them.

Most of those being affected will be first-year home students. That same cohort of students that saw their school careers peter-out in March, had their A-Level examinations scrapped, had a horrible time ascertaining their A-Level grades and their choice of university but nevertheless battled through to go to a course of their choice and made every effort to have a proper student experience full of determination and optimism. Yet in this Government guidance they are given no priority. Many of them will see their January examinations disrupted and their courses chopped and changed. When is this particular year of students going to be given a break by those seeking to control their lives?

No doubt we will now be occupied by calls for rent refunds. There will, I think be a quite different approach between educational providers and the private sector. Most of the private sector are smaller landlords in off-street houses in multiple occupation, known as HMOs. These landlords are unlikely to make any changes to their rent arrangements.

Universities are increasingly seeing small rent refunds as ‘sweeteners’ and there will be some of these. Some higher education institutions have bigger accommodation operations than others and those that have not suffered adverse publicity will not be inclined to refund. 

Private sector purpose-built student accommodation, known as PBSA, where accommodation is their mainstream business, with no academic fees to bolster them, will see these current arrangements as not triggering rent refunds. To do so would entail a case-by-case approach as different students arrive at different times and it is not certain that students will, in any event, follow Government advice and not return. Initial figures obtained through the National Codes show that 30% of students will return home just before Christmas (many retaining their hard-won part-time jobs) not in the Government ‘window’. It would be very difficult, within a single household, to try and charge different students different amounts, and rent has always been set over a contractual period unrelated to actual occupancy. Nor do rent refunds help the most needy; most of them may be spending the next nine weeks paying rent but living virtually alone.

Since the lockdown in March until late summer, student accommodation was given an important role in universities returning to being fully open. Communications between accommodation suppliers and universities were almost seamless and co-operation hit new heights. What has happened since October is that the residential experience has been side-lined. The Government has not been engaging with accommodation providers (as it did before October) and is now dealing exclusively with ‘sector bodies’ and the messaging between universities and accommodation providers is currently declining to the detriment of the student experience.

With the vaccines, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but for first-year students, that tunnel will last for most of their first year: their household will be their home, their first port of call for support and socialising and the very foundation of their university experience. Over the next few weeks, perhaps, we can all (Government included) aim to rekindle the importance of the residential experience of students and not have that dictated by a testing or travel timetable.

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