‘The cost of accommodation is very much a talking point’, says chair of ASRA

Karen Burke, chair of ASRA, tells us what will be the effects of the Building Safety Bill on student accommodation, how accommodation providers are becoming more sustainable and what impact the pandemic has had on the sector…

Karen Burke is the chair of the Association for Student Residential Accommodation (ASRA). She has a wealth of experience working in the student accommodation sector, having been involved with the organisation since 1999 and working at Sheffield Hallam University as an accommodation services manager for over 30 years.

ASRA represents some of the UK and Ireland’s largest student accommodation providers and affiliated organisations and people. The association provides networking, training and support to its members and hosts an annual ASRA conference – the largest student accommodation event in the UK and Ireland.

Over the past two years, the student accommodation sector has been forced to adapt to the impact of the global pandemic and a fast-changing higher education environment, revealing the resilience of the sector. We spoke to Karen about the impact of new building regulations, the rising cost of student housing, student accommodation post-pandemic and what we can expect from this year’s ASRA conference.

The ASRA annual conference is taking place 6–9 March 2022. What are the main ideas and themes set to come forward at the event?

The main theme of this year’s annual conference at Wyboston Lakes is ‘Embracing Change’, which is certainly something that has been at the forefront of the sector for the last two years. At our training events, some of the topics that will be touched on include sustainability, students and community, and professional development. There will also be our popular supplier showcases and practical tips sessions.

What are you most looking forward to at the conference?

I think what we are most looking forward to is meeting colleagues in person and even though we have been active on social media, there is nothing quite like a face-to-face catch-up!

The ASRA chair says lots of providers are talking about how best to keep the cost of student accommodation affordable for students.

 

What has been the biggest challenge for ASRA due to the pandemic?

ASRA has had several challenges due to the pandemic, not least moving the conference twice, and all the issues that the management team have encountered alongside this. In addition, keeping engagement going, particularly during those challenging times and ensuring that our members were still engaging through our platforms was a key consideration.

How might the pandemic permanently change the way student accommodation providers operate? Eg better accommodation-university data sharing agreements for mental health, wellbeing chaperones for every building, etc.

The pandemic has certainly changed the way student accommodation providers operate. For example, they have supported the isolation rules for students and embraced the blended learning experience by way of provision of suitable space. In many ways, it has also enhanced the support services within accommodation and the direct links to wider services provided within universities and colleges.

ASRA has had several challenges due to the pandemic, not least moving the conference twice, and all the issues that the management team have encountered alongside this.

Can you foresee a bigger role for flexible student rental agreements? Eg for commuter students.

Due to the occupancy levels within the sector, accommodation providers have had to adapt and look at how the contractual arrangements can meet the needs of all students, whether they reside for the whole academic year, commute, or have short-term contact times at university. I think this will continue to be the norm moving forward.

Inflation is at an all-time high and gas prices are expected to rise sharply. How might this affect the cost of student accommodation when students are already calling for more affordable housing?

The cost of accommodation is very much a talking point annually for the sector and the external factors will always be considered when setting rent levels for the next academic year. However, there will have been lots of conversations behind closed doors as to how the sector can mitigate these factors and still be a popular option for students hoping to have an experience away from home.

More flexible renting options are likely to become the norm in the future, Karen Burke predicts.

 

In light of the recent Building Safety Bill, how will student accommodation providers, particularly those with multi-storey and high-rise buildings, respond to new fire safety regulations?

The main points of the proposals (England) will affect those accommodation providers who have buildings of 18m and above. There will be a legislated Building Safety Department (like HSE) to which providers will need to submit specialised in-depth Fire Risk Assessments, have a Resident Engagement strategy which engages and informs on Building Safety, have a Building Safety Case in electronic format and ensure the culture and competency of those living and working within the buildings to ensure they remain safe. An occupancy certificate will also be required to operate the building.

Student accommodation providers have been criticised for disability-friendly rooms being more expensive than regular accommodation. What can student housing providers do to address this issue?

There have always been discussions around adapted rooms and the costs, and because of my previous experience, I am aware that some providers do have price differentials which I feel can and will make a difference to potential student choices when viewing possible accommodation options.

Universities across the country have committed to becoming net zero by 2030. Are there any student accommodation providers sharing carbon zero ambitions?

There are many initiatives within the sector. For example, some providers have completed net zero audits with clear action plans on how to reduce carbon emissions and expect their suppliers and contractors to have a similar approach. This year ASRA have a learning stream on sustainability where attendees will have the opportunity to share their ideas and learn from experts within the field.


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