Student accommodation: mind the gaps
Clive Read from VWV explores why it's so important for universities to get their accommodation right
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that education accommodation, whether of residential or academic provision, must be in need of being ready in time for the start of an academic year.”
Some things have that inevitability about them and, while social mores have changed in the past 200 years since Jane Austen’s infamous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice as para-phrased above, universities know the importance of key buildings being ready on time for the start of an academic year and the havoc that can ensue if the development goes awry and is delivered late.
Student accommodation is big business and a key part of a university offering. Get it right – with well-proportioned and thought-out accommodation, good facilities and a supportive environment – and everyone is happy. When it goes wrong – late delivery, outdated design and facilities, expensive relative to other sites/units – then it can become a real headache. Overlay all that with increasing regulation, competing styles and offers available, and the ongoing delays around Brexit which can hamper forward planning, and you can see why the lot of heads of student accommodation and directors of estates can become fraught.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues and the steps that can be taken to alleviate concerns:
Late delivery in time for the start of term
The law of sod is one which developers and landowners have been contractually grappling with for years, which is why contracts are lengthy and complex, and universities need good and robust advice throughout that process. Sometimes things just happen: both Swansea and Portsmouth Universities’ student developments were said to be delayed because of unforeseen issues, while Durham’s development at Treveleyan College was due to delayed regulatory certifications. So, what can be done?
- Robust procurement can help provide comfort in the planning phase – good pre-qualification questionnaires normally refine and hone the bodies you might then want to invite to tender. Again, those ITTs should provide comfort that the contractor is technically capable and financially robust to support you throughout the project. Check those and interrogate the financials. Take up references from other clients with whom they have worked – are they consistently delivering projects on time and on budget?
- Allow sufficient time from the outset – what is the build programme and what is the contingency period? Is it enough? Really? We ask universities to test those time-frames as best they can and, if it is looking really tight for one academic year, are you better off waiting for another year, and building in that extra time contingency? While that may have a cost impact, that might be more palatable than having to deal with the fallout of a late-delivered building – unhappy students, adverse PR and implementing a plan B
of what to do next until it’s ready.
- Actually have a plan B – sometimes force majeure events do occur (floods, strikes, etc) which are really no one’s fault and contracts cater for those – but you still need a fallback if those do occur. Where will students go – local B&Bs, hotels, or doubling up in other halls of residence? Who pays for that? Slightly more tricky are the events where, even with site inspections, parties reach for the contract: eg the ribbon of sand running through a site which unfortunately the trial boreholes managed to miss every single time. Unlucky? Yes, but how to address the obvious fallout in terms of extra cost and additional delay?
- What’s the likely cost of that delay? Contracts can seek to cater for this through a mechanism of LADs (Liquidated Ascertained Damages). These are meant to be a realistic assessment of the consequences of delay so do require some work upfront to calculate the financial recompense due. While it may not fully address adverse PR consequences, it can at least alleviate some of the financial impact.
- Grasp the problem and seize the initiative – when something is not going right, it’s important to have a strong management team and advisers who can help assess how best to address the problem and come up with some solutions. It’s also vital to keep in the loop as best you can those most directly affected because it’s clear that students will be anxious and stressed if there’s an issue with late accommodation.
Wellbeing and accommodation
The World Health Organisation reports that people spend over 90% of their time indoors, which helps explain why buildings and their management can have such a large effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of students. Whether universities provide their own accommodation or utilise third-party providers, it’s clear much more is being done to tackle this issue. Universities should consider:
- Ongoing assessment of the best and worst accommodation and repositioning the university offer where you can. Clearly, existing longer-term contracts have to be honoured but even then consider what steps could be taken for the provider to revamp/refresh the accommodation and, in the absence of that, what is the university on the hook for – duration, rent guarantees, etc – and what could you do to re-fashion that offer or terminate? Lots of questions to be answered but, sometimes, if there’s a problem site, can you turn that round with additional investment in the site or service management?
- For existing accommodation, if you can’t make physical adjustments, are there other service delivery aspects that might help? The reconfiguration of small, confined rooms may not be viable but what about providing other complementary services? These could include better and more collaborative social spaces: coffee shops, games rooms and group study rooms as well as sports facilities, all of which are often designed to encourage more social interaction.
- Purpose-built student accommodation can provide the best of both worlds, addressing both physical and mental wellbeing. Admittedly that can come with a slightly higher weekly price-tag, for which students are prepared to pay if it’s a better-quality bespoke residence. More open and green space, better ventilation and circulation systems (including windows that open!), better collaborative space, ongoing events throughout the year, better lighting and open-plan spaces: all of these improve the overall feel and operation of student accommodation.
- More than ever, universities recognise the importance of pastoral care for their students. Whether it’s the stress of moving away from home or student debt, there is usually a network of advisers, counsellors and other staff who are on hand to provide support at what can be an extremely difficult period in a young person’s life. Universities UK is also playing its part with the publication of guidance, such as Suicide-Safer Universities, where strategic planning and a holistic outlook can assist in the broad themes of prevention, intervention and post-vention.
Student accommodation plays a major part in a university portfolio and its offering for students. Student satisfaction surveys highlight the importance of getting it right. Once the dust has settled, the aftermath of the start of an academic year offers a chance to review and address what works and what doesn’t and what steps could be taken to improve the quality and overall service, thereby continuing the ongoing cycle of improvement.
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