Living and learning in the lap of luxury

These days, student accommodation is a far cry from the dingy, drafty digs that you were all too familiar with, writes Tim Walker
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The Independent Online

The quality of student digs always used to be measured by the number of blankets you needed in winter, the size of the damp patch on the ceiling, or whether you could use the kettle and the toaster at the same time without short-circuiting the entire house. So it seems odd that, in a time when all the talk is of soaring student debt, halls of residence across the country are beginning to resemble The Ritz.

Take the Wilmslow Park halls in Manchester. Here, around 1,000 students from Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities can enjoy a morning sauna to sweat out last night's hangover before lectures; they can also have a leisurely afternoon workout in the gym followed by a couple of lengths of the heated indoor swimming pool. And, of course, they needn't worry about hoofing it into the library to do their essay research - every room has a broadband internet connection as standard. Opal, the private firm responsible for Wilmslow Park, charges students in the region of £90 a week for the privilege of living there and is planning similar developments in at least six other student cities. Currently, 300 of the 600 rooms in the Wilmslow Park development are owned by Manchester Metropolitan University; the rest are private rooms occupied by students from the University of Manchester and other surrounding colleges. Opal has no formal arrangement with the University of Manchester.

In Nottingham, University Partnerships Programme (UPP) have a 634-room development coming into operation in September, including studio apartments with ensuite bathrooms and self-contained kitchens. "Students find them very attractive if they want to live alone," says UPP's chief executive Clive Crawford. UPP also have new halls of residence opening on the Lancaster University campus this year; with ensuite rooms of "hotel standard". UPP's rents average out at around £85 a week, and unlike Opal, they work exclusively in partnership with universities, with all their schemes close to or on campuses. "We work with a dozen universities, who fill our accommodation with their own students," says Crawford. "We carry out student satisfaction surveys each year and I think we have a pretty good idea of what students want."

Universities and students are obviously happy with the UPP model and have requested more similar developments. "Institutions want to provide a reasonable amount of university-controlled accommodation," Crawford explains. "Where students live is becoming of increasing importance to universities in attracting students now that they have to pay fees and so on. Also, a high proportion of university accommodation is between 30 and 40 years old and no longer attractive to students."

But not everyone has their rose-tinted specs to hand. The National Union of Students (NUS) are concerned at the proliferation of such swanky new halls run by private organisations like Opal and Unite, the country's largest student accommodation company, who cater to some 31,000 students, in over 125 properties, 10 of which opened in the last academic year. Up to 440,000 of the UK's university students now live in private properties. In Birmingham, Unite whipped up a storm when they changed students' lease contracts from the conventional 40-week lease to 51 weeks. The company's properties house a large number of international students and the change was made to allow students the flexibility to work in Birmingham over the summer and keep their belongings in university rooms during the holiday. However, it also led to a significant price hike, in some cases almost £1,400 more a year, prompting some students to launch a petition in protest.

The choice does rest with the student, however. Unite, for example, provide a mixture of accommodation, including the more sociable "cluster" flats, around shared kitchen and lounge facilities. Their rents in some cities begin at under £60 a week, but the demand remains for the more luxurious, high-end housing.

Students are so keen to live in ensuite accommodation, with all its attendant mod cons, say NUS, that they forget about the £4-5,000 annual price tag and only notice the hole in their budget once it's too late. "It's a real concern for us," says an NUS welfare spokesperson. "All students want these nice, shiny new flats and only later do they realise that in fact they're lonely and isolated from the student community. Students in accommodation with shared facilities generally have a better social life and a healthier bank balance."

NUS recommend the housing system at Leeds University as an example of best practice. Leeds offer a range of rentals, from £40 to £100 a week and work with the Students' Union to find out what students want. "It's not always the case that universities work with the student union so closely," says the NUS welfare spokesperson. "If universities are keen on attracting more working class students then they must ensure that there is cheap accommodation available."

Evidently, private halls providers like Unite and Opal are responding to a demand from a student population with the cash (albeit their parents' or the bank's) to spare, and the reliably comfortable accommodation they provide has proved popular. Unite recently opened the UK's first dedicated student accommodation shop in London, where students and parents can drop in for a taste of the luxury home-from-home that awaits. Every property has an "on-site hospitality team" to ensure that the Unite accommodation experience is a smooth and happy one - which sounds remarkably like a hotel staff team (without the tipping, presumably). And even if students do find that the size of their rent payments squeezes their drinking budget to one decent night out a week, with unlimited internet access, gym, games room, café, pool and sauna all to hand, why would you ever leave the house?

Digs with a difference

Wilmslow Park in Manchester has the country's most outrageously swanky halls, with a swimming pool, gym and sauna.

Nottingham University has 634 brand new halls at Broadgate Park, including studio apartments with self-contained kitchen and bathroom.

NUS praise Leeds University's housing system, which offers plenty of accommodation to suit a range of budgets, and works closely with the students' union to meet students' housing needs.

Southampton and Liverpool Universities both come recommended for the high standards they demand from private landlords wishing to advertise accommodation to their students. At Southampton, The University requires landlords to provide a copy of a Gas Safety Certificate, certificates of electrical safety and evidence that single point mains wired smoke detectors have been installed. Southampton's Mercury Point halls, owned and managed by Unite, have enviable views of Southampton Marina.

In Liverpool, students are advised to use Liverpool Student Homes (LSH), a joint initiative between the Universities of Liverpool and their respective student unions. All the properties on the website are registered on the LSH Code of Practice.