Jon Wakeford: Will the Tories shake up student accommodation?
Group corporate affairs director at UPP discusses what the student accommodation sector might expect from Boris Johnson’s government
In December, the British public emphatically returned Boris Johnson to Downing Street with a large Conservative majority. What will this new sense of political dynamism mean for the UK’s HE sector?
Looking ahead, it is clear that HE and the PBSA industry as a whole will have to adapt in the face of changing government priorities and directly address issues of affordability that have been raised by both the Office for Students (OfS) and in the recommendations of the Review of Post-18 education.
The new composition of the Conservatives means that focus could shift towards greater support for further education and apprenticeships – as illustrated by their manifesto commitment to “invest £2bn to upgrade the entire further education college estate and develop 20 Institutes of Technology”. Equally, the government has said it will consider “the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning”.
The PBSA industry will need to recognise these shifting priorities and demonstrate both how they support universities in the provision of affordable accommodation, but also the wider long-term social value they bring.
Value for money essential
This focus on affordability was evidenced by Chris Skidmore’s summit on PBSA delivery and value-for-money, while the ongoing ‘Cut the Rents’ campaign underlines the political cost of failing to tackle these issues head on. In light of this, student accommodation providers and their university partners need to engage with this by widening and informing the narrative on the real difficulties and costs involved in delivering accommodation that is both affordable and of an appropriate quality.
The provision of student accommodation has, to a large extent, facilitated the expansion in participation witnessed across the sector over the course of the last two decades
This engagement is essential because the provision of student accommodation has, to a large extent, facilitated the expansion in participation witnessed across the sector over the course of the last two decades. It also represents a vital element in future growth, as the number of 18-year-olds in the population is set to grow by nearly 23% over the coming decade, which could represent an extra 350,000 potential places. Given the demand by the majority of students for a fully immersive on-campus experience, PBSA will need to respond accordingly, enhancing the student experience and ensuring value-for-money.
In 2020, student accommodation providers need to ensure that the role of provision is recognised for the vital role it provides in many university towns and cities helping to relieve the pressure on the wider private rented housing stock. However, as an important element of a university’s ‘shop window’, accommodation plays a critical role in attracting and retaining students. Both UK and international students are key to local economies, with spending by the latter generating £25.8bn in gross output for the UK economy including £10.8bn of UK export earnings.
Reducing the burden of debt?
Beyond this, we can expect elements of continuity with Johnson’s administration. While the previous government drew back on any commitment to cutting tuition fees, the Tory manifesto did speak of “[looking] at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students”. This was a key focus of the review ordered by Theresa May to reduce the lifetime costs of participation and levels of repayment.
Strengthening the civic role
Finally, the government has committed to “[strengthening] universities and colleges’ civic role” to encourage greater integration between universities and their local communities, with a view to developing mutually beneficial outcomes and the propagation of shared values. The UPP Foundation is leading the way in this respect. The Foundation’s Civic University Commission – launched in 2018 – has already established an important precedent in this area, bringing institutions together to support local areas.
In summary, for the student accommodation sector, the new government appears not to signal a radical change in direction. The debates on accommodation affordability have been present for some time and it is right that they should be interrogated. However, this must be informed both by an understanding of the practical challenges of delivering affordable, high-quality supply and the wider context of an industry that has developed to service growing demand, unprovided for elsewhere.