Clearing 2015: Private student accommodation has en suite rooms and wi-fi as standard

At £200 per week, purpose built residences now offer all mod cons – and more.

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The Independent Online

If your view of student accommodation leans towards grotty terraces with the shared bathroom a no-go area and the inhabitants locked in dispute about unpaid electricity bills, then the chances are you’re a parent. Today’s students, who unlike their parents are taking on considerable debt to attend university, would have little patience for such arrangements: for them accommodation must be clean, modern, with en suite rooms and wi-fi as standard – and all for a flat, all-inclusive fee. 

Universities have certainly upped their game in order to offer the kind of accommodation that will attract fee-paying students. Yet the surge in student numbers over the last decade has created opportunities for private property developers to enter the market to help universities meet their pledges to accommodate all first year students.

“There has been a doubling in the number of students in the last 10 years but there’s certainly not been a doubling in the number of halls of residence and much of the existing housing stock is tired and run down,” notes Bob Crompton, chief executive of the Student Housing Company, which in the space of just five years has built an inventory of 11,000 rooms across the UK. “For universities, accommodation is not their core business, education is what they do. That’s where we come in.”

Working with groups such as the Student Housing Company, universities can tap into a property portfolio that lets them guarantee rooms for all their freshers as well as enhancing their offer to valuable overseas students.

“Our universities sell themselves internationally as top class places of education and with that comes an expectation of top class accommodation,” says Crompton.

This type of purpose built accommodation is like a halls of residence on steroids, with up to 1,000 rooms in some of the bigger developments. This kind of scale means the provider can afford to have trained staff – receptionists, maintenance workers and security guards – on hand 24/7.

“It’s like a halfway between total independence and family home,” says Crompton. “You’re independent but there’s always someone there. Parents certainly like this model because of the security.”

Rooms are en suite with groups of five or six sharing a communal living and kitchen area. There are also study areas – described by Crompton as a “Starbucks type environment” – which are proving increasingly popular. “Today’s students are a studious bunch,” he notes.

Prodigy Living sees the shared study area as a key feature of its offering. The newcomer is part of Greystar, a South Carolina-headquartered real estate group with nearly 400,000 units in the US, a market where student accommodation is a service driven business.

“Here in the UK we are buying properties and refurbishing them significantly, putting in fitness facilities, study rooms, games and cinema rooms, even a bowling alley in one property,” says managing director Brett Lashley, who believes the Prodigy Living model is different from some of the incumbent operators in the UK. “We look to provide residents with superior service but it doesn’t mean it has to cost a lot more.”

A key feature, he says, are the shared study spaces. “We’re investing quite a bit of money on these collaborative spaces,” he says. “There are walls they can write on, projectors and computers, free printing services and very comfortable seating.”

The work spaces can also be tailored to the needs of the students. In London, for example, where Prodigy Living offers accommodation convenient for those at the University of the Arts London, the study areas include long tables on which fashion students can roll out reams of fabric as well as standing benches and sinks for those working in clay or other media. “It’s a more thoughtful way to provide space for students,” says Lashley.

Jenny Shaw, head of student services at Unite Students, the oldest and largest provider of accommodation in the UK with 45,000 beds in 130 properties across 28 cities, agrees that study rooms are increasingly important.

“We have study spaces in half our blocks and we’re looking to expand that as we see how popular they are,” says Shaw. “And, of course, high speed reliable wi-fi is a given – all the research shows that this is the most important thing to today’s students.”

These purpose-built blocks tend to be close to universities so students can stay close to the lecture hall and lab. The only exception is in London, where some blocks are located further out to keep rents down; in these cases the accommodation will be near a high speed rail link.

“It’s important to have a range of price entry points,” notes Shaw. “Our prices are in the average band for their area, although we also offer some higher priced options, which are more like studio flats, which tend to be popular with postgrads.”

Costs do vary significantly depending on location. In Huddersfield, for example, there are en suite rooms just a two-minute walk from the university for just £105 per week, in hotspot cities like Bristol its more like £165 a week while London is easily £200 a week and, for those buzzing central locations, north of £300 a week.

Not all students who turn to the private sector will want to live in a mini-villages. For many, the appeal of the traditional student house remains a university rite of passage, albeit updated for 21st-century living with en suite rooms and modern kitchens.

“We find the most popular type of accommodation is a house for five people – it seems to be the magic number,” says Matthew Hubbard, a Staffordshire-based property investor who provides accommodation to students at Keele University and Staffordshire University. “There’s still a real hunger after a year in halls to get a house with a small group of good mates. It’s part of the university journey.” It can also be cheaper: in Staffordshire these five-bed blocks typically cost around £75 to £80 a week, including bills.

Private providers currently have availability for those heading into Clearing but advise students to act quickly once their place is confirmed: come September, there will be limited choice.  “We were 100 per cent full last year and expect the same this year,” says Crompton of the Student Housing Company.

Check out websites for availability and prices, room specs and locations. Visits are welcomed and rooms can be secured with a deposit, to be held in a guarantee scheme. Be sure to read the T&Cs. Next stop, Freshers’ week!