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Education, Education, Education

Chris Newbould looks at the challenges of housing the nation's growing student population

An about turn has taken place within student housing over the last 10-15 years, it would seem. While the collapsing buildings, exploding front doors, stray nuclear weapons and singing Transylvanian landlords of The Young Ones’ time in further education may have been an accurate portrayal of student living in the eighties, modern student digs are more likely to be typified by en-suite bathrooms, residents’ gyms and plush new build palaces close to city centres and universities. Where did it all go right?

It seems the changes were spurred by the dramatic rise in the number of students entering university from the early nineties onwards. Higher Education Statistics Association figures show that by 1994 student numbers had almost tripled to around 1.6 million since the eighties, and this trend has continued since, albeit on a smaller scale, with the current 2,260,000 students in the UK representing a 19 per cent increase since 1999.

This was coupled with the transformation of many old-style polytechnics into full-blown universities. Many of these polytechnics, however, had no history of, or facilities for, providing accommodation for their students, while the existing accommodation at the traditional universities also struggled to cope with the huge influx of numbers.

Through the eighties and early nineties, many universities had been able to comfortably house virtually all their students in their own halls of residence. Even in the most heavily subscribed universities first years could reasonably expect to find a place in halls, with the local private market likely to be their destination for their remaining years. By the mid-nineties, however, this state of affairs had altered beyond all recognition as a new player entered the market in the form of large-scale specialist student housing providers. With eventual government targets that 50 per cent of 18-year olds should attend university, the need for such providers seems unlikely to dissipate in the foreseeable future.

Of course the private sector has always played its role in housing the nation’s students. Now, however, in place of the substandard homes in undesirable areas that all too often represented the sector’s contribution in the past came shiny glass-fronted structures close to city centres, offering luxury accommodation close to bars, shops and the other essentials of student living.

It seems that the demand for student housing has increased not only in terms of volume, but quality too. Tabitha Burchill, director of public affairs at Unite, the UK’s largest student housing provider, has some ideas as to what has caused this:

“The demands of students have changed over the years. Now that students pay tuition fees, they feel much more like consumers, and they are buying into the lifestyle that is the student experience. As a part of this they expect value for money and excellent customer service, as well as a high quality product, whether in terms of education or accommodation,” she says.

“The run down houses are still out there, but having often come from very nice backgrounds the modern student consumer does not want to live there! With the new housing act that came into force this year, which covers student housing just the same as any other type, such sub-standard housing should become even more of a bad memory for students.”

The new act, covering conditions in all multiple occupancy homes, may lead to improvements across the board, but it seems landlords will have to be working overtime to keep up with the standards the leading large-scale providers seek to maintain. The four largest providers- Opal Limited, Prime Living Group, Unite and University Partnerships Programme (UPP)- have all signed up to the voluntary, NUS approved Code of Standards for Student Accomodation, while widescreen TVs, DVDs and broadband connections all feature as standard in many of the companies’ properties. Indeed, according to Birchall, it is not only in terms of equipment that Unite can meet the needs of the most discerning customer:

“It’s a very high pressure life being a student in the modern world, and they are determined to get their money’s worth. For example, many students may not want the hassle of worrying about paying bills for utilities on top of all their studies and social commitments, so in our accommodation this is all taken care of for them, leaving them free to make the most of their time at university.”

A student neglecting to pay bills, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon. A student neglecting to pay bills due to living in a state of the art city centre pad, where such inconveniences of daily life are swept aside for them however, is a somewhat newer concept. It’s perhaps no wonder in a world where student’s main objective is to live in a swish flat with a plasma screen TV and a rooftop swimming pool that the student protests of yesteryear are seemingly a thing of the past, with axing the poll tax replaced by a succession of NUS presidents who have supported tuition fees before moving onto a comfy job within Labour Party HQ.

Not so, says Birchall: “Students are still a very vocal section of society, and the NUS is still lobbying and campaigning on their behalf, but it takes place in a different way now, through online petitions. The modern student is more of a customer, and is just as likely as any other customer to complain if they are not getting what they want.”

With Unite’s own Student Experience Survey revealing that over 60 per cent of respondents consider ‘The freedom to live how I want’ as the most important aspect of the experience they are buying, it seems fair to assume that a repeat of the student-inspired general strike which crippled Paris in 1968 may not be coming to Loughborough anytime soon.

Nonetheless, should the police brutality that sparked the Paris protests raise its head once more you can be sure that the emails to the customer service department of the local constabulary will soon be flooding in.

Of course, the new large-scale private providers have not totally cornered the market. With well over two million students to house, even the almost 100,000 students living in the big four’s properties represent only around five per cent of the market.

Universities continue to house many students in their halls of residence, while the mainstream private sector continues to play its part. What makes the large-scale specialist developers unique, however, is the role they can play in the wider housing and regeneration sectors of the areas in which they operate.

The number of homes operated by the largest providers clearly puts them on a par with the bigger housing associations, while a development programme on the scale of Unite’s 8,642 secured new units is the stuff of many developers’ dreams.

Furthermore, by the nature of the typical geographical location of universities, much of the development work takes place in precisely the sort of run-down inner city areas where it is most needed. Most of Unite’s early developments took place in disused office blocks in the centre of its Bristol hometown, while Manchester and other cities have seen a host of disused industrial and commercial buildings put to good use for student accommodation. Where large numbers of students appear, businesses typically follow, and these developments can play a key role in the regeneration of our towns and cities.

New build student homes, meanwhile, represent one of the most buoyant development markets in the UK, and the sector is a key exponent of some of the most forward thinking approaches to the creation of homes. An impressive 51 per cent of Unite’s development last year consisted of modular units, and it manufactures its own en-suite study bedroom units, shower pods and kitchen units at its factory in Stroud, making it one of the biggest MMC procurers in the UK.

Partnership working is also crucial in the field, with the accomodation providers working closely with key contractors and designers, as well as universities themselves. Some 35 per cent of Unite’s accomodation, for example, is leased directly to universities, who then allocate rooms to students themselves. UPP, meanwhile, recently agreed a £30 million contract to provide mixed use academic and residential facilities for the University of Plymouth. The new facilities will be designed and built for energy efficiency, avoiding air conditioning by using passive ventilation and sculpted, outdoor shading devices. Clive Crawford, Chief Executive of UPP, commented: “Given the financial difficulties facing higher education, partnership with the private sector to fund, develop and operate future academic needs is a logical and cost-effective solution. We are delighted to be pioneering a new concept with the University of Plymouth, built on the foundations of our existing partnership.”

With universities free to focus their attention and resources on education, developers able to provide highly specialised accommodation and recoup their outlay through the rent on the properties and students receiving the kind of accommodation that is conducive to learning, rather than repeated bouts of hypothermia, the new partnerships seem to offer a so far rare example of PFI success within the housing sector. That said, with over 2,000,000 students now required to pay a variety of tuition, top-up and other fees, and a government that claims to back its commitment to “education, education, education” with the necessary funding, it seems strange that universities need private sector partners at all.

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