Prof Graham Galbraith: Is private student accommodation meeting students’ needs?

Porstmouth University’s vice-chancellor highlights concerns over affordability, value for money and late student accommodation developments in the PBSA market

The horrific fire at Bolton, together with over 20 late private student developments in 2019, have provoked ministerial interventions in student accommodation. Concerns have since been raised over affordability, value for money, wellbeing and more.

I am certain that where you live and how much it costs are very important to you. But when it comes to student accommodation, this seemingly trivial point has not received the attention it deserves. I am pleased to say that things may be changing.

Private sector accommodation is more expensive than university accommodation – 22% over the year (outside London) and the sector is getting larger. Last year, the private sector controlled over 50% of the halls of residence beds in the UK – up from one-third in 2014.

Last year, the private sector controlled over 50% of the halls of residence beds in the UK

To understand the issues better (and to see what can be done), I recently chaired a Universities UK roundtable on student accommodation. Sector and student representatives attended, as did members of the higher education think-tank world and Unipol, whose voluntary code many private providers sign up to.

The key considerations

Cost, the customer and wellbeing

It is clear that accommodation issues are of critical importance to many stakeholders. For students, it is about the cost of living, fair treatment as customers and their general wellbeing. For parents, it is similar – the FT recently reported that more than one in 20 parents takes a second job to support children at university.

Value for money

For taxpayers and government, it is about value for money. While tuition fee loans, and hence costs for students, currently do not rise with inflation, maintenance loans do. An increasing proportion of the amount graduates owe is due to living costs – in a few years, it could be over half the total.

The ‘place’

Universities’ most obvious imprint on our towns and cities is our physical presence. In cities with housing problems, it matters little that some student accommodation has no formal link with universities and can be developed despite our planning objections. Local people see money invested in universities and students, but very little invested in them.

When things go wrong

When developments are late or amenities don’t work for extended periods, students find that contracts can be very one-sided, favouring the developer. There are also concerns that welfare issues, particularly around wellbeing and mental health, are not always given sufficient weight in accommodation design and management.

Pricing

There is a growing price differentiation between cheap and basic to all-singing-and-dancing accommodation, with the availability of ‘affordable’ accommodation increasingly left to universities. Concerns around the ‘ghetto-isation’ of poorer students are, in my experience, overblown but significant differentiation weakens the claim universities can proudly make that higher education is the least socially stratified part of our entire education system.

Demographics

There are longer-term issues around the demographic increase in 18-year-olds from 2020. Where will universities house these extra students? Are we having conversations with our cities and communities about the potential impact of more 18-year-olds? Are private developers discussing their plans with universities and local authorities?

In the short-term, we can strengthen regulation to support students and be clearer on where responsibilities lie where private providers have no formal relationship with a university.

But longer-term work is needed, particularly around the demographic increase. This will involve individual universities as well as the sector, students and government collectively – much of it in partnership with other stakeholders.

This work is unavoidable. People assume all accommodation belongs to universities and expect us to act even when we have no levers to pull. Whether problems arise with universities’ own accommodation or not, it is our reputations on the line.

Over the next few months I will be working with UUK to see what work we can do to address this important issue. If you are interested in being involved, please let me know.


Please email: graham.galbraith@port.ac.uk or visit: www.port.ac.uk


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