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Choosing student accommodation? What do you need to know?

  • 21 December 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

At HEPI, we’ve published lots of work on student accommodation in recent years – sometimes in conjunction with accommodation providers and their charitable foundations – including:

  1. history of student accommodation over the decades by the Reverend Professor William Whyte;
  2. compendium of facts about student accommodation by Martin Blakey and Sarah Jones; and
  3. a report by David Maguire and David Morris on how the accommodation of commuter students – who tend to be forgotten about in conversations about student housing – affects their education.

We hope to add to this tally in 2022. In the meantime, the new Unipol / NUS Student Accommodation Costs Survey report, issued earlier this month, is a fantastic resource for policymakers, institutions and students to work out the latest state of play. It is worth reading every word (or, if you are pressed for time, the excellent Executive Summary) and I was privileged to speak at its launch: so this blog makes three brief points prompted by it.

First, I think we need a new term for Purpose-Built Student Accommodation, which has come to be known as PBSA. Or rather we need two new terms. As the Accommodation Costs Survey report makes clear, there are important differences between university-owned halls of residence and private-sector residences and the term PBSA, which lumps them both together as one, confuses as much as (possibly more than) it clarifies.

I know there are grey areas between university-managed and entirely privately-owned accommodation. But if we separate out the two types of PBSA in policy discourse, it not only illuminates the differences between them but also helpfully shines a spotlight on those areas in between (such as partnerships between universities and corporates). So, in my view, instead of lumping both types of PBSA together, we should distinguish between the two to see what is happening under the bonnet.

Secondly, we all know the student accommodation sector is impressively sensitive to demand. The other day I spoke at the Property Week Student Accommodation Conference and saw how much activity was going on there – it was almost as if COVID had not happened. I know too that, whenever anyone queries inflation-busting rents, the answer from accommodation providers is that the more expensive properties fill up first, so what are people meant to do when deciding what to build? It all suggests students want what they are being offered.

Yet I do wonder if, as the student body continues to diversify (with UCAS expecting one million applicants by 2025) and cost-of-living pressures becoming more severe, whether the day will come for more good-quality but low-cost rooms, as we’ve seen in the hotel sector. We might all worry about the risk of such a model providing less day-to-day support for students’ needs, but this is not a sector that stands still.

While, on diversification, I also think we could usefully have a conversation on so-called ‘segregation’.

  • A diverse student accommodation market will have different price points and many students have a strong desire to live with other people like them. Both of these factors drive different people towards making different accommodation preferences from one another.
  • On the other hand, very many people believe higher education should be a melting pot where you meet people from different countries, different backgrounds and with different characteristics. Well-designed student accommodation facilitates this. Long ago, some universities even priced all their accommodation at the same rent to encourage this.

So what I don’t know is whether we should be mainly pleased by the ever growing diversity of provision, which reflects the ever growing diversity of students, or whether we should be more worried that this risks removing something important about the student experience? Jenny Shaw of Unite Students, who has been considering these issues for many years, neatly summed up the issues some years ago, on the back of some of her valuable research among applicants:

university applicants are keen to live with students from other nationalities and cultures – but not necessarily in the same flat. … it can be interpreted as an expression of applicants’ desire to learn from other cultures, while at the same time not always being confident enough to live with others who are very different from themselves, especially during a time of profound transition.

Thirdly and finally, I am struck by the conclusion of the new Student Accommodation Costs Survey that, ‘More information must be made available on students’ accommodation choices.’ This is the one point in the new report that I disagree with. To me, it doesn’t seem to go far enough.

There is actually quite a lot of information already available for those who know where to look (one good example is StudentCrowd and another is Unite Students’s Leapskills). So it may not be information that is lacking so much as support. In the careers’ world, they talk about IAG: Information, yes, but also Advice and Guidance, which are more detailed and more personalised. Given the importance of getting your accommodation choice right, the proportion of your income that your room will cost and the impact your accommodation choice has on your overall student experience, it is often the most important decision a young people will have made in their lives to date, apart from their choice of course of course.

Applicants’ parents intervene in the decision-making process more than they used to but they are often only of modest use in choosing student accommodation, given how many of them did not go to higher education themselves and given how much student accommodation has anyway changed in recent years. So there is a strong argument for seeing more than information provided; I would like to see advice and guidance available to applicants as well.

En suite or not en suite? Self-catered or catered? A flat with a small number of others that has a higher rent or a larger flat with more fellow students and a lower rent? Closer to campus or further away? Bigger bedrooms or bigger social areas?

These are the sorts of things that people need more help deciding between than they have always had to date or than would be provided simply by more information. (And, incidentally, if the admissions system were to be changed, applicants would have even less time to make up their minds.)

As we expect this to be the final HEPI blog of 2021, may we take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and all the best for the new year. Thank you for all your continuing support in another turbulent year.

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