The digs of tomorrow

High-quality accommodation is a necessity for undergraduates, but what do today’s students want from their halls? Asks Larry Day

Perhaps accommodation isn’t the first thing that most students would be thinking of when looking at universities – with courses, the university’s location, and beer prices probably ranking higher, but the establishments themselves will have to be making living quarters a focus as student cohort sizes are predicted to increase exponentially in the coming years.

Removing the cap on student numbers could have unpredictable consequences on accommodation. As the perennial wildcard of technology looms also, will universities be forced to adapt and evolve around changing needs on all fronts?

There’s only so much space to build new blocks, either on campus or off, so how do universities make the most of their land? How can they ensure they’re providing things that students actually want and need?

‘It’s quite often very small and simple things that seem to cause the most frustration’

Kier Property, one of the partners who helped create the state-of-the-art blocks Clifton House and Stewart House in Glasgow, took the direct approach, liaising with then-current and prospective students in the area, and keeping them in the loop throughout the process.

“We had multiple workshops with both our operator, CRM, and students who were already living in Glasgow in other accommodation,” says Senior Business Manager Sharon Mitchell. “[We wanted] to get a feel for what they liked and didn’t like, what features really attracted them to stay somewhere and what things, if missing, would prevent them from choosing somewhere.”

“They gave feedback on everything,” she continued, “from design through to building management, colour schemes, floor finishes, storage, what they wanted to see in the common areas, and so on. Most of this feedback, where financially viable, was incorporated into the scheme. It’s quite often very small and simple things that seem to cause the most frustration – be it lack of storage, not a big enough wardrobe, poor acoustics between rooms, blinds not being blackout material, not enough plug sockets, no bedside table… it all sounds quite simple, but seems to very often get overlooked on other schemes.”

“We see a growing desire for belonging and community’

Certain demographics and groups of students need certain features, with Mitchell highlighting that “having a 24/7 presence at reception was a big factor from a security perspective[…] for a lot of female students.” Continuing, she said that “It’s not just about the finished building and the furniture that you put in – it’s equally as important to have the right management of the building with friendly staff to help students feel at home and ultimately safe.”

With such a vast array of needs to be catered to, Mitchell highlights flexibility as an absolute must. “Everyone studies differently,” she says. “We have therefore tried to provide as much flexibility in our accommodation as possible, to include private study rooms, group study rooms, breakout areas, sophisticated common areas where students might go to read a book, and, of course, they also have their rooms to study in as well… all we can do is provide the flexibility to try and make sure we appeal to the widest possible student base.”

The Student Hotel, an international accommodation company providing long- and short-term stays for students in foreign cities (or not, in some cases), have a unique business, and they’ve come up with unique solutions to certain problems – some of which might be transferrable.

Explaining the allure of The Student Hotel, the company’s Director Of Partnerships, Frank Uffen says: “We see a growing desire for belonging and community. We become more mobile and international but at the same time we like to connect and feel a sense of home. You see that in our hotels where travellers connect with students and vice versa.”

“We believe there are three main things that make a student scheme attractive – location, quality and a range of different room types’

Uffen also offers his perspective on the shifting needs of students. “So many people, so many flavours…,” Uffen begins. “We see that age or type of programme (bachelor versus master) is less of a factor than the type of international study experience people are seeking. If you are in a master and you have a family, obviously you want the privacy, but if you are single and will spend half a year in Paris you will likely enjoy a more community driven residence.”

An interesting point that Uffen elaborates upon is the communal area. “We are building an everything-under-one-roof concept,” he says. “We believe your bed is just one part of the needs of our community. We have opened up our ground floors with public facilities such as espresso bars, co-working spaces, meeting rooms, auditoriums and classroom that are popular with education and entrepreneurship groups looking for alternative learning and working spaces.  We also provide our guests with maximum flexibility; no matter who you are you can stay one night or a full year. To us everyone is a student.”

This vertical integration of accommodation and learning spaces is an intriguing one, and perhaps one that universities may adopt, especially if land values across the UK continue on their current skyward trajectories.

You can imagine many students would leap at the opportunity to live above their lecture halls, being able to crawl out of bed minutes before it begins; similarly, if there’s a café or bar on the ground floor, it surely makes the entire block a throbbing social hub.

Many universities in recent years have sought to capitalise on the trend for stylish communal areas that blur the line between chilled-out study areas, sociable cafes, and coffee shops. Sometimes, bars are incorporated with facilities for watching sports, playing pub games, and even more, with live music and other events.

 “The demand profile we’ve mapped for our students shows that the majority want to live in newer, better located accommodation that doesn’t lack amenity and facilities,” explains Leeds University’s Residential Services Director Ian Robinson.

He adds: “Our student residences need be well designed, secure, convenient to use, conveniently located and, above all, they need to provide students with an opportunity to live in and be part of a really sociable community.”

One other fairly major aspect of any accommodation is location – both difficult to get right, and impossible to change. Students require all the amenities any working family needs, plus others – access to libraries and various campuses is paramount, while good transport facilities are also a must. A few shops and pubs tend to be high on students’ lists of desires too. Some might argue that the location can often be more important than what’s inside, with students willing to trade their en suite for good access to a bus route.

It makes striking that balance even more difficult – often the best locations aren’t cheap, nor are they convenient to develop. Students may want to live in the city centre, but do they want to pay the rent that comes with that? Designing and constructing new accommodation is like spinning a dozen plates.

“The demand profile we’ve mapped for our students shows that the majority want to live in newer, better located accommodation that doesn’t lack amenity and facilities”

“Location is very important,” says Kier’s Mitchell. “We believe there are three main things that make a student scheme attractive – location, quality and a range of different room types… if the location is poor then students will go elsewhere as it is often the main differentiator.”

Going on to explain what they believe makes a location great, Mitchell says: “We like to either be within walking distance of the University, or walking distance of the city centre as students seem generally prepared to commute to one or the other, but not both. Clearly if we can be within walking distance of both then that is a bonus.”

Leeds’ Robinson is similarly keen to point out the importance of location: “Our satisfaction surveys reveal the importance that our students place on being located close to the University in en suite self-catered accommodation, the convenience of an excellent internet service and the provision of good social space inside of flats.”

The Student Hotel’s Uffen shares a different view. “Distance is a subjective concept; everyone has a different idea. Our first location in Amsterdam was considered by locals as far from the city, while the international students liked it because it was on top of a metro station. Locals use the metro much less so they didn’t value it equally.”

Looking to the future, Kier Property’s Mitchell expects diversity and range to become a huge factor. “Student accommodation already looks vastly different from three years ago, let alone five and 10 years ago,” she says. “The big difference recently is what student developers are offering as amenity and common space. We’re now seeing high-end schemes with bowling alleys, rooftop bars and cold storage rooms so students can get their food shopping delivered in the day and stored for them until they return from University… people are looking for more and more ways to differentiate themselves from the other accommodation to be as attractive as they possibly can.”

The Student Hotel’s Uffen agrees, noting that “flexibility, service, safety, community and quality are definitely things we hear a lot as priorities from the university partners we have.” Another thing they’re expecting to influence accommodation in the future might be more surprising: “I think students will be more vocal about what fits their needs; they expect the schools to support them as the pressure to perform in school grows. So I expect that universities will be more important in changing what student housing we offer and how we offer it.”

Despite the rise in fees a few years back, university has never been a more popular choice for young people in the UK, with higher education hitting record admissions this year. If this continues even moderately, developers and universities are going to be forced to start construction sooner rather than later… and they may have to get pretty creative in the process. 

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