Living it up

Students are expecting more from their accommodation nowadays, but in what areas should universities be investing? asks Charlie Lyon

Long gone are the days when students were happy to accept under-par living arrangements: three chilly showers between 20, one telephone per corridor and mass-catered dining halls with fixed monthly menus. Now, with inflated education costs, they want a more comfortable base for their university experience, where private bathrooms, communal study and social areas, and technology at their fingertips will help them get the most from their education.

What’s more, we have a growing student population, and those requiring institution-maintained and private-sector hall accommodation have risen by 52,000 in five years.

The pressure is on for universities, especially later this year, when government student number caps will be removed, to provide bigger and better residences. Frances Stone, chair of CUBO (College and University Business Officers), says universities must be quick to adapt to satisfy student expectation: “As a result of greater accommodation choice, more competition between universities, the increase in tuition fees and a general improvement in living standards, students now have much higher expectations regarding their accommodation,” she says. “This means that universities need to be more attentive to their offer and those that can react quickest to the market are likely to be the most successful.”

Private providers 

One of the main ways Stone sees university accommodation development changing is through its reliance upon private investors and operators. She believes they help to drive up the standard: “Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the amount of private provision in the sector,” she explains. “This has mostly been through purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA). The influx of PBSA has given students more choice, which is generally a good thing. It has also driven up the quality of the accommodation as it is generally new and built to a high spec. It has forced universities to evolve their own accommodation offer, either by investing in new builds or renovation projects.”

High-spec living spaces 

One university that is using private providers to help build a state-of-the-art facility is the University of Salford. Along with Salford Village Limited and accommodation provider Campus Living Villages, the university is opening an £81m state-of-the-art halls of residence in 2015. The Peel Park development offers 1,386 en suite bedrooms across 213 cluster flats with large kitchen and dining/lounge areas. The communal facilities include a gym, games room, cinema, study rooms, multi-faith room and social spaces.

The Campus Director believes the halls will be key to attracting new students to the institution: “The demand for student living has grown consistently since the dip that was felt in 2012 when the tuition fee increase was introduced. This year the University-own and partner accommodation is full. We expect this to continue next year, and the accommodation is going to be key in raising the interest to the University and the Salford area.

“When it comes to accommodation facilities,” he continues, “universities are a little behind the private market and have some catching up to do. High bandwidth and fast Wi-Fi, new digital technology opportunities to socialise and network will all be trends evolving in the future.”

An improvement in security is also being called for, and modern facilities like keypad-entry and CCTV will help to woo security-conscious students.

Location, location, location 

The University of Roehampton is also currently investing heavily with a loan from Lloyds Banking Group, realising that the demand for on- or near-campus accommodation is growing. Two construction projects are taking place, one 210-room hall on Roehampton Lane, just outside the university, and another 390-room hall at the centre of the Digby Stuart College campus.

Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Star, Director of Estates and Campus Services explains: “As London’s campus University, we have seen a significant rise in demand for accommodation on or very near to our campus. These new developments will make a huge difference to our ability to address this demand.

“By living on campus, students know they will have a high standard of accommodation in modern buildings that are secure, near to the library, their lectures, our students’ union and computer rooms,” she says.

“Living on campus saves travelling time and cuts costs, as well as giving new students the chance to meet other people and settle in well.”

Even if not on campus, though, Alwani-Star realises that a good location with other benefits is critical: “With a rising intake of international students, we are also starting to see demand for accommodation closer to the heart of the capital,” she explains.

“We’re only 30 minutes from the West End anyway, but this year we have started to offer accommodation with views of the Thames in central London, from where students can walk to Big Ben, South Kensington’s museums and Trafalgar Square. These rooms have been popular in their first year; they have a communal gym and swimming pool, cinema and music rooms, whilst still only being a short 20-minute commute to the campus.”

For students who do not live on campus, Alwani-Star recognises that good transport links are essential for a good student experience, and to help them feel connected to the University. She says: “We promote the most efficient public transport services to our students, as well as discount travel cards. We are lobbying hard for a more frequent bus service between the campus and Hammersmith, our nearest tube station, and for an increase in the number of trains stopping at Barnes, the closest mainline station to the campus.”

Residence life

Residence life experience is key to attracting new students. And the trends here are changing just as much as residential halls are changing physically. It’s an area that Michael Ball, chair of ASRA (Association for Student Residential Accommodation), has seen develop recently, and where he predicts there will be further change in the future.

“A key trend in student living is communal areas supporting the residential community,” he says. “Many universities are investing in Residence Life Teams to support existing warden programmes. The teams are there to support all levels of wellbeing and integration within the University and the local community.”

The teams are also responsible for activities, events and social programmes. But Michael can see their responsibilities growing even further in the years ahead.

“Who knows,” he suggests, “service personnel may come as standard. On-call cleaners, catering advisors, demonstration in your own kitchen, and even transport on demand…”

Flexibility for families 

Investment from the University of Aberdeen in the city has topped £40m since 2008, with new and refurbished facilities, and the possibility of potential investment in a new Unite development in 2017, when it’s constructed.

A spokesperson for the University says that flexible contracts for students other than single, full-time students are high in demand. “Accommodation for families, especially for international postgraduates is a trend we’ve seen developing in student living recently.”

She goes on to explain: “The University of Aberdeen is rising in the international rankings and proving increasingly popular with postgraduates, including many from overseas, for example to study master’s degrees in business and energy-related subjects. We have always provided some accommodation specifically for families and we see this as an area of growing need, particularly as private rentals are expensive in Aberdeen.”

Value for money 

Despite the demand for upgraded accommodation providing high standards of living, price sensitivity will still be an area universities need to focus on. CUBO’s Frances Stone reveals: “With most of the world still on a slow recovery from the recession, students and parents are incredibly price sensitive and increasing numbers of students are applying for cheaper accommodation.

The challenge for some universities is to maintain or increase their surplus without pricing themselves out of the market.”

Alwani-Star, from the University of Roehampton, agrees: “With 47% of our students coming from the lower socio-economic groupings, we’re doing all we can to enable our students to complete their higher education journey comfortably.

When asked if universities are ready for the future demands of students when it comes to their living arrangements, Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Star says: “It is not the case of ‘will we be ready?’ We will have to be ready.”

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