High pads: How student accommodation is changing

Standards are rising in student accommodation as a new strand of luxury living challenges the chequered reputation of digs. Keri Beckingham checks in

When it comes to choosing university accommodation, today’s students have more choice than ever before. Private purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) providers have driven demand for a new standard of university digs, where a host of facilities and services are provided as part of students’ rental agreements. According to estate agent Knight Frank’s 2018 UK Student Housing Update, 30% of full-time first-year students across the UK live in PBSA, a rise of 22% on five years ago – but what are the main reasons for this change, and how can institutions ensure that their accommodation hits the mark?

Student expectations
Lynn Wingate is regional manager of Sanctuary Students and events officer for the Association for Student Residential Accommodation (ASRA). In her experience, she believes that value for money is a key expectation for today’s students when it comes to their accommodation. She says: “It’s no longer about ‘a bed’; students want larger rooms, double beds, study space, communal space, excellent customer service and hassle-free living.”

Trish Booth, student living systems manager at Manchester Metropolitan University and ASRA North Regional Representative believes that social media is a key driver in setting students’ accommodation expectations, as they use these platforms to research providers and self-validate their choices with peers. “They are researching how to achieve the best overall experience and comparing the offers, almost on par to the supermarket experience of BOGOF,” she says.

Study Inn Group provides student accommodation in cities such as Bristol, Loughborough and Cambridge. It believes that student living standards have risen for three related reasons: students can afford better lifestyles due to the availability of domestic student loans and funding for international students; developers’, funding institutions’ and universities’ understanding of the need for better quality accommodation; and the migration of students from the suburbs into the city centre, which in turn has driven the rejuvenation of evening retail and leisure facilities in these cities.

Study Inn Serviced Studio

Kieran Leahy, director at Study Inn Group says: “These three factors have directly led to a higher standard of living and better lifestyle for those students accessing PBSA in university cities over the last 10 years, giving students (and their parents) the choice of secure, well-located, well-managed, good-quality housing stock in city centres.”

Facilities and services
As the focus on wellbeing continues to gain momentum across institutions, accommodation providers are now looking to offer support services as students become more vocal about their mental health.

As Moray Notman, university engagement director at Unite Students, explains: “Unfortunately we know through research that this generation of young adults are unhappier, lonelier and more lacking in confidence than other generations.

“Providing support to a student in their time of need, no matter how great, which is informed and connected to professional support within their institution, is something we introduced and have continued to develop.”

Matt Merrick is chief operating officer of iQ Student Accommodation, and as part of its offering it offers events that help students to connect with each other. He says: “A few years ago these events would have been more beer-and-pizza focused but we now offer a wide range to suit all tastes – from fitness classes, to meditation, to cooking lessons and pet therapy.”

In terms of on-campus catering options, students often have the choice of termly or annual meal plans for breakfast and dinner, which are usually in canteen-style outlets. But Charles Willoughby, business development director at caterer CH&CO, doesn’t believe such a structure is the future. “We know, for example, that students are most likely to miss breakfast for many reasons – from the rigid timings of mealtimes not fitting with their timetable and commitments, to the offer being wrong and monotonous.

“With our flexible meal plans students can simply pick up their breakfast in any one of our outlets across campus, giving them far more freedom and choice, and ultimately enhancing their student experience.”

As the focus on wellbeing continues to gain momentum, accommodation providers are now looking to offer support services

Study Inn Group was created from a hotel background, and so customer service is extremely important to them. As Matt Shakespeare, operations director, explains: “Our residents are treated as guests and we provide them with a secure, friendly environment.  We provide all of the equipment a person would need within rooms, kitchens and communal spaces, so that our guests only need to bring their laptops and clothes.

“We clean all bedrooms, kitchens, and shower rooms and we provide bed linen and towel replacement as standard at no additional cost. This keeps the accommodation quality to a very high standard throughout the year and allows our guests to concentrate on their studies and other activities.”

Opto Student Newcastle is a purpose-built student accommodation development of 227 studio apartments and communal facilities including a gym, reception, games/TV room, cinema/meeting rooms, a courtyard and a separate outdoor events venue. Jerald Solis, director of Opto Property Group, says that changes in student lifestyles have resulted in these facilities being offered.

“A recent study of UK-based students found that the average money spent on their health and fitness, such as gym memberships and sports clubs, now far outstrips the money spent on alcohol,” he says.

“At the same time, students are looking for the convenience of on-site amenities that can save them time and money, like launderettes or common social spaces like cinemas.”

Many universities and private providers also offer cleaning services as part of their accommodation packages. Student Living by Sodexo manages university accommodation at a number of institutions including the University of Greenwich and University of Northumbria, offering a weekly clean of communal areas and light touch clean for shared facilities. Commenting further, Tracey Smith, managing director of Student Living by Sodexo said: “We are seeing increasing demand for cleaning services from students, and interestingly for areas that they might have done themselves in the past.

“There’s a balance to strike here between meeting consumer expectation and supporting students to live independently and preparing them for life after graduation.”

The private rental sector
How is the private rental sector adapting to the changing expectations that students have for their accommodation? Guy Ludlam is owner of Gnome Student Homes, a provider of over 70 student rental properties in Sheffield. He has seen student requirements rise over the years due to the extensive choice available, which has forced landlords to upgrade their accommodation as a result. In addition, he has also seen an increasing number of students wanting maintenance services provided as part of their rental agreements.

Ludlam says: “Students are not prepared to put up with sub-standard accommodation, since they know that there is so much more choice on offer. They want a modern finish to the kitchens, bathrooms and furniture that matches in the bedrooms.

“Students are looking for a more simplistic way of living, with a hassle-free lifestyle, such as a fast and effective maintenance team to offer good follow-up care.”

Key considerations for new accommodation
What are the key considerations that our experts think should be kept in mind for the building of new student accommodation?

Study Inn Cinema Room

Lynn Wingate believes that changes to study periods require a flexible approach to study needs, as some students now spend less time at university as a result of distance learning and placements. “A variety of accommodation should be considered that caters for both the short term (for example one week to six months), and the current longer-term student,” she says.

Moray Notman believes it’s essential for students to be offered services that match their ambitions and individual needs. Discussing this idea further, he says: “Today’s young adults resonate with brands which share their sense of purpose. This may be by providing an opportunity to build life skills, gain experiences which support their career aspirations or having a friendly service which they can lean on in a moment of need.”

Opto Student Property researches and identifies the key pull factors which will make a development attractive before the project is started. Solis says keeping up to date with students’ changing demands is essential. “Will it be within close proximity of the university grounds? Does it have desirable mod cons like gyms and cinema rooms? Is it safe and secure?” he asks.

“With students expecting a higher quality of living than in years gone by, we ensure all of our developments are equipped with modern finishes and excellent facilities.”

In addition, Matt Merrick also believes that it’s important for accommodation providers to tie in with the needs of students and their courses. He explained: “The two-part refurbishment of our iQ Bristol property saw the construction of a music room to complement the music courses taken by a number of our residents and their desire to practise together.”

So what does the future hold for university accommodation? With students’ high expectations showing no signs of lowering, providers across the spectrum from universities to private landlords will need to ensure that their offering continues to hit the mark.

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