Great Suffolk House: students in a jamming session

Students - and parents - have increased their expectations of university accommodation. Luckily it can be affordable too

Ask any parent who has been to university about halls of residence and they are likely to describe draughty corridors, cramped study bedrooms, queuing for the bathroom and communal squalor.

Not any more. Student accommodation has moved with the times and, if not sybaritic, is certainly a deal more comfortable than in days gone by with wi-fi internet access as standard.

Expectations have risen along with fees. Tatty communal halls have given way to a variety of living spaces from individual study bedrooms with en suite bathrooms to shared flats.

Most universities prioritise first year students, making places available in student apartments especially on campus to all who request it. With around 3,000 new undergraduates starting each year, Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) has 2,272 student beds available; over half are on its Mile End campus. Most of the newer flats have en suite bathrooms.

Architect designed, QMUL's Mile End student village won the Housing Design Award when it was completed in 2005. It certainly helped the brand, "According to Ucas data, it's put us ahead of some of our competitors such as Brunel, UCL, King's and University of Westminster," says residential support manager Suzanne Cantelow.

Choice of student accommodation varies according to the nature of the university. Sited in generous greenfield sites, on the outskirts of towns and cities, campus universities will often own and manage large estates of student flats and halls. City centre universities, by contrast, have less space and consequently make more use of the growing private providers of luxury student flats such as Unite Student, Prodigy Living and The Nido Collection where rents can easily be in excess of £200 a week. Priced at the higher end of the market, private student accommodation boast 24-hour concierge, laundry services, and other extras.

But both campus and city centre universities make considerable use of private landlords. And many universities actively manage such accommodation by acting as agents for landlords, advertising flats to students and regulating market prices and letting contracts.

QMUL makes use of both private providers and individual landlords. "We have a nomination agreement with Cass and Claredale, a charitable trust which provides student accommodation for £125-130 a week. And at the upper end of the scale we have a similar agreement with Unite Student where we have negotiated a capped rent of £170 a week and a 44 week annual letting as against their 51 week standard contract," says Cantelow.

Previously responsible for student accommodation at Oxford University and the University of Essex, Mike Nicholson, Head of Admissions at the University of Bath has witnessed a quiet revolution in student living. "There's been a big shift towards self catering and that's something which might surprise parents. Students see going to university as an opportunity to acquire independence and life skills. Having to sit for communal meals at set times of day is not how students experience life." Even Oxford colleges have swapped the refectory waiter service for self-serve hot food counters.

For Lauren Symons, a recent graduate in media practice from University of Sussex, shared meals were a highlight. "We had Come Dine With Me competitions in our flat to find the best chef. Some nights it was Mexican or Italian themed. One night everyone had a hand in cooking a massive Thanksgiving Day dinner in honour of a couple of American students who were staying in our hall."

Besides inviting parents and applicants to an open day, the University of Sussex publishes an online parents' guide which seeks to reassure and provide detailed answers to frequently asked questions. Parental concerns are much more complex than simply cost, security and privacy. Issues to consider include how to find rented property and flat shares off campus for the second year, transport, healthcare, and even the provision of grocery stores for students who self cater.

Sussex's Falmer campus is like a small town. "We have a healthcare centre with GPs and nurses and even a dental clinic on campus. There is a Southern Co-operative convenience store, a students' union shop, a pharmacy and a bike hire service run by the students' union," says Charles Dudley director of residential and campus services.

Disabled access is well catered for in most institutions. For example, QMUL has four rooms fully wheelchair adapted and a further 32 rooms catering for a range of disability with wider doors, disabled toilets and adapted facilities.

According to Nicholson, quality and variety of accommodation is key in making the decision about which university to study at. "For students and parents it's part of the offer. It's what differentiates universities and makes students feel at home," he says.

Case study: Charlotte Keers, 19, architecture student, University of Bath

'I felt I already knew a lot about the people I was sharing with'

From Carlisle in Cumbria, Charlotte Keers (fourth from left) opted to live on campus during her first year. She chose Eastwood, a complex of low-rise apartment blocks. Costing £103 a week, her room was furnished with a large desk, wardrobe, chest of drawers and bed. Each student flat has communal kitchen and shared bathrooms. "I was sharing with seven guys and six girls," says Charlotte.

Arriving by car late in the afternoon, Charlotte and her parents were met by two student ambassadors who helped unload her belongings. She recalls: "The other students were already in the kitchen getting to know one another, so my parents said they'd unpack all my things in my bedroom and left me to make friends."

To help flat sharers feel at home, Bath University's Facebook site has a page where students can chat and exchange details even before they move in together. "I felt I already knew a lot about the people I was sharing with," says Charlotte.

The communal experience of halls has helped Charlotte settle in to university life. "Everyone leaves their door open, which is friendly but is a bit awkward if you've just had a shower and are wrapped in a towel!"

Next year Charlotte is sharing a house with seven former flatmates in the suburb of Newbridge.

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