Student housing: Is this the end of dank digs?

Accommodation for students has long been below standard – now that's changing. Mary Wilson reports
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The Independent Online

Historically, a student's flat or house wasn't something any self-respecting parent would willingly set foot in, unless they could close their eyes to the peeling wallpaper, damp around the windows and disgusting state of the ancient cooker, not to mention the state of their son or daughter's room. But in many university towns, second- and third-year students who want be off campus have a chance to live in something far more salubrious.

Smarter student accommodation is also in demand because of the increase in older undergraduate applications. Figures for the 2009-10 academic year from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) show a 12.99 per cent rise in applicants aged 21 to 24 and a 12.6 per cent surge among those over 24. Although many students have already sorted out where they will live, for those that haven't, or will be going through clearing, there are some surprisingly nice student flats and studios waiting to be snapped up.

Johhny Manns, of Hive Student Residences, which is completing two student blocks in Hoxton and Bethnal Green, east London, says: "We wanted to focus on the London student market and have strived to create a class-leading product that meets the ever-increasing aspirations of its renowned universities and international student base in terms of quality and service."

The interior accommodation has been designed by Tara Bernerd, of Target Living, who has made sure the units are both trendy and functional. The rent includes all utility bills, 20MB broadband, 21-inch flat-screen television, TV licence, telephone line rental and contents insurance: the modern essentials that today's students cannot do without.

Stephanie Hill-Phillips, 19, is looking forward to moving into her Hive flat in Hoxton in September, when she will start the second year of her studies. "I like the fact it is brand new, very well furnished, very well thought out and very clean," she says. "It's only about £20 more expensive than many other flats I've look at and has lots thrown in. At other places you have to get your own TV and licence. I also like the idea that I will be with like-minded people. It's good to live in a place where people are doing the same thing as you."

There are 220 units in Hoxton, with a mix of six-bedroom flats with kitchens and balconies, two bedroom studios or self-contained studios. In Bethnal Green there are 203 studios. All the flats have under-floor heating and dishwashers (ideal for students averse to washing-up liquid) and there are top-floor common rooms with quiet study areas and large roof gardens. Rentals start at £210 per week and both blocks also have landscaped courtyards. Hive plans to build three more blocks between 2010 and 2012 in Shoreditch, South Bank and Tower Hill, cashing in on the boom in university places across the capital.

Gilmore Satchell, a recent graduate of Loughborough University, rented a more typical 1980s two-storey, five-bedroom house close to the university rather than one of the new student flats because it was cheaper, at £75 per week. "But the electricity bills were so large it actually wouldn't have cost that much more to rent a room in a modern complex," he says.

A friend of his, Aimee Skinner, 22, chose to live in one of the new blocks, The Waterways, by the Grand Union Canal, before moving into a house for her final year. "It was quite posh and brand new, which was really nice," she says. "I paid £87.50 a week, which included a TV with Freeview and Sky Sports, TV licence, broadband and utility bills. We would have had to pay more if we went over £250 in bills per person during the year, but none of us did."

The Waterways is managed by Mainstay Student Apartments, which also runs similar student accommodation in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Lincoln, Sheffield and Stockport. Each block has slightly different features, but at The Waterways the flats have 32-inch LCD TVs, leather furniture and double beds. Current rentals start at £94 per week.

Opal has been building student accommodation since the 1980s but has recently had to up the ante with its decoration, style and configuration because students have become more discerning. "Common rooms used to be painted in magnolia; now students want them to look like a trendy bar. They also want larger bedrooms and we've recently introduced studios as well as leisure facilities in some blocks," says Joanne Rowbotham of Opal.

The company will open three buildings in September in London, Sheffield and Nottingham, and the latter is fully booked already. There is a mix of three- and six-bedroom flats and studios, some with double beds. The rent includes utilities, internet and contents insurance. In Nottingham there is a gym and at Sheffield, students are given a discount for the leisure suite at a previous building, Opal Sheffield, which has a swimming pool, sauna and hot tub. Rents in London start at £177.60 per week and in Sheffield at £87.76.

Unite has also built smart student accommodation in 24 locations. Ten buildings are opening this September in Exeter, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bath, Leeds and London. All bills, internet access and contents insurance are included in the rent, which starts at £117 per week in Bath and from £155 in London. The most striking, Sky Plaza in Leeds, is a 37-storey building for 533 people and sets a benchmark for student accommodation in the city. Flats and studios above the 19th floor have "premium features" such as contemporary furniture, wooden flooring, washer/dryers and flat-screen TVs.