Action needed on unsustainable student residential model, report says

The Hepi and UPP Ltd report said student residential living remains popular but urged debate around what purpose it serves in the 21st century

The student residential model is unsustainable in its current form and its purpose is unclear in the modern era, a report has warned.

The report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and University Partnerships Programme (UPP) has warned that the rising cost of living, impact on local communities, and design of accommodation has weakened the present model.

The joint report also questioned what purpose the residential model serves amid concerns of worsening student mental health and rising rents.

The Reverend Prof William Whyte, professor of social and architectural history and the report’s author, said there was still strong demand for student accommodation, but added the report “raises questions about the nature and purposes of that model today”.

British students are far more likely to study away from home than almost anywhere else in the world. In 2017/18, over 80% of full-time UK students left home to move to university, compared to only 50% of Irish students.

According to joint research by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Unipol, student rents have soared in the last decade. In 2010, students spent just over half their loans and grants on rent, but that percentage has increased to nearly three-quarters.

NUS has called for student strikes and rent caps.

A 2019 Hepi survey revealed that the cost of living was a higher priority for undergraduates than tuition fees – six in 10 said rent and bills were their biggest concern versus two in 10 that cited tuition fees.

In a foreword to the report, Jon Wakeford, UPP’s group corporate affairs director and chair, wrote: “The issue of the value-for-money of accommodation has emerged as a key area of focus for both the NUS and the Office for Students in the wider context of the affordability of going to university.

“We would support such a review and engage alongside our university partners with whom we agree rents annually.”

The report’s recommendations

Appropriate information:

The report said universities must make it clear to students “the true cost of living and the real conditions in which students will live”.

The sector had been hit by inadequate, patchy provision, the report added. This autumn, The Times revealed five universities had to find incoming students temporary accommodation at short notice after developers failed to finish projects on time. More than 1,500 undergraduates were affected.

Pastoral support:

Commuter students should be offered “spaces and places” to work and relax, the report recommended. A Hepi report from 2018 noted that data indicates students “who have longer commuting times have significantly lower progression rates”.

Anglia Ruskin University is one of many to host breakfast clubs to help those living away from the campus integrate with the university community.

The report also concluded that residential students need more support and information. Over the past five years, demand for mental health services among students has risen by 45 %.

Read more: Two in five UK students report poor mental health

Accommodation design:

The report urged universities to engage with students’ voices. “There has been an over-emphasis on cellular accommodation and an under-appreciation of the need for communal and shared space,” the report noted.

The 2018 Unipol report found a 30% reduction in the number of self-catered student halls with shared facilities and a 123% increase in studio apartments since 2012/13.

Unsustainable rise in rents:

The report called on universities to “think hard about how they choose the partners who will build, or service accommodation and this relationship can offer less expensive options for students”.

According to Unipol, the overall average weekly student rent stands at £147 – an increase of 5% on the year before. The average student now pays £6,366 a year in rent – with rents in London nearing £9,000 per annum.

Impact on local community:

The report warned there is “a real danger” that crowding, nightlife and the impact on local housing could drive a wedge between universities and their neighbouring communities.

Debate on student residential model:

On the release of the report, Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said the student residential model, “makes higher education even more life transforming and a clearer part of the journey to independent adulthood”, but added that debate was needed to reaffirm its purpose for a more diverse student population.

Read the full report 

Somewhere to live: Why British students study away from home – and why it matters

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