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Universities need their A-game on student accommodation
9th March 2018

This year will mark a decade since the introduction of tuition fees in higher education, a move that has been completely transformational for the sector.

In one swift move, studying for a degree became an overt business transaction with a tacit understanding that students had now become customers.

It has had a profound effect on the psyche of both the student and the university in terms of the expectations of former and the aspirations of the latter.

Competition between universities is no longer solely about academic credentials but many more factors, notably the quality of life for the students who will be investing tens of thousands of pounds for this next stage in their educational journey.

Visualisation of new student village at Oxford Brookes University

A recognition that students who are now paying handsomely for the privilege of a higher education may demand somewhere more salubrious to rest their heads has driven a revolution in the provision of student accommodation, both in terms of scale and offer.

So much so that student accommodation has been one of the hottest property asset classes of the past decade with more than £10bn invested in the UK in the last three years alone, peaking in 2015 at £5.1bn.

Up and down the country, tens of thousands of student beds have been created to meet the growing demand, developed by universities themselves, private developers and student accommodation specialists.

The number of students in purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) has more than doubled in the past decade and while there remain challenges ahead in the sector – from over-supply in some locations to increasing development costs – it remains a sector on an upward curve.

The challenge for universities and developers going forward is to ensure that new student developments are not only financially viable but continue to meet the evolving needs and expectations of their customers.

What is clear is that the classic interpretation of the traditional student digs – as occupied by the Young Ones in the classic TV comedy – has now been consigned to the history books.

Today’s student body is not only more discerning but much more diverse, with international and post graduates making up around a fifth of all higher education students, and each group brings a different set of demands in terms of their accommodation needs.

However, while each of these three customer groups may have differing requirements around basic fundamentals such as cost, size and privacy, at the heart of the student accommodation equation is something much more difficult to define – the student experience.

Whether it is city centre or campus living, cluster units with shared kitchens and social spaces or individual studio spaces, it is the experiential aspect that will drive the future PBSA sector – and this will differ from location to location.

“Whether it is city centre or campus living, cluster units with shared kitchens and social spaces or individual studio spaces, it is the experiential aspect that will drive the future PBSA sector”
Martin Bates, Director, Broadway Malyan

Designers must understand the experiential offer that exists between where the student sleeps and when they arrive at their faculty building and tailor the PBSA accordingly - high quality co-living facilities will be an important aspect of out of town campus developments but perhaps less so in vibrant city centres.

The student rooms themselves and how they are constructed will also continue to evolve as technology advances. Just two decades ago a student might need space for a TV, a computer, printer, games console, hi fi and even some books – today they just need a laptop.

Designers are not just looking at the needs of today but predicting the needs of the future, where science fiction as depicted in novels such as Ready Player One where people are living their lives through virtual reality headsets, increasingly becomes science fact.

We are now at a stage where the designer is increasingly focused on a creating a room that meets the anthropometrics of the student, subject to the experiential customer values relative to location and university typology.

In short, student rooms are getting smaller and so communal, social and study spaces are getting bigger. The designer is focusing on the creative use of storage and seating, a variety of sleeping rooms, better kitchen and dining facilities with a view to ensuring that the end product meets the needs of the ‘health generation’.

The PBSA sector remains one of significant opportunity, but it is not without its challenges for developers with rising construction costs, competing land uses and planning policies all putting a strain on the viability of PBSA in core locations so innovation in design and construction techniques are all crucial for the future growth in the sector.

Off site or modular construction is becoming increasingly popular across the education sector, offering a more efficient construction process when done well, although increasing demand in other sectors such as hospitality and built to rent is already starting to see capacity issues which in turn will have an impact on the cost and time benefits.

Designers are now looking at the next generation of student accommodation where the boundaries are increasingly blurred between living and learning, future proofed to meet the inevitable changes in technology, innovatively considered to support efficient construction and necessary volumes and most importantly, sufficiently well-designed and equipped to pass the customer value test.

*Martin will be discussing the future of student accommodation at a joint event with Addleshaw Goddard and Cushman & Wakefield at MIPIM 2018.