On the waterfront: The changing face of student digs

Forget the grotty digs in a rundown house, Masters students are now opting for luxury.
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The Independent Online

A panoramic view of the Liverpool docks from enormous glass windows in the designer sitting room, spacious en suite bedrooms and a concierge service are some of the luxuries that Henry Brown, 22, a PhD student, has in his digs. Nor is he a lone student calling a swanky £350,000 apartment "home." In the private One Park West development in a highly desirable area of Liverpool, more than 10 per cent of the accommodation is either owned or rented by students – almost all studying for a Masters or Phd degree.

Brown, studying at Liverpool University, is well aware of his good fortune. "It is a very comforting place to come into, knowing this is my home. The living room is fantastic, and has lots of light. We bought it undecorated, and my dad came over and helped me get fitted kitchens and good furniture."

His parents, who live in Hong Kong, bought the apartment as an investment for their son to use. Likewise, the parents of Sam Pullinger, 22, bought his apartment in One Park West, although he added in his savings. He is at Liverpool John Moores University studying for a Masters in exercise physiology. He likes the little design touches and the "very good finish" to the place, and especially the enormous gym which is part of what you get as a resident.

Pleasant as it is to be so pampered, what does it do for your relationship with friends living in rather less salubrious quarters? Pullinger ponders this: "My friends think I'm lucky to have this place, but they don't act jealous. They come around and enjoy the view."

It's all a far cry from the stereotypical student digs: damp terraces with dingy bathrooms, kitchens where the cooker has seen generations of culinary efforts, carpets imprinted with dirt and maybe the odd cockroach. But the demand for a greater "comfort zone" is the way of things these days, says Ken Roberts, Professor of Sociology at the University of Liverpool, which has a large number of mature students.

"Students want a higher standard of accommodation than in the past, and expect creature comforts and mod cons," says Roberts. "Our university accommodation was built in the Sixties and needs upgrading. It contrasts a good deal with most of the student accommodation being built by private enterprise in Liverpool, because students have become a big market."

A highly competitive market with profit in mind has replaced subsidised halls of residence. Jessica Noons, a spokeswoman for One Park West acknowledges this: "The vast majority of students in our apartments are from wealthy backgrounds, and are either studying for a Masters or PhD degree and looking for peace and quiet."

Online advertisements for custom-built student accommodation vie to sound the most enticing. Carlton Luxury Student Accommodation has large beds, a de luxe environment and a 24-hour emergency call-out. While Digs Student, a company with places around the country, aims to seduce with a total lifestyle. "Each of our sites are jam-packed with creature comforts no student could be without: a place to socialise, a place to study, a place to get fit, a space to relax and a space to shop."

Unite, which claims to be the UK's leading provider of custom-built student accommodation, houses 40,000 students around the country, and claims to "offer a new concept of student living". It specialises in "cluster flats" with private bedrooms and en suite bathrooms, which it seems no self-respecting undergraduate can be without these days, and communal living and eating areas.

But, with a bow to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, Unite talks of a hierarchy of need, so that Masters students want something better than the basic, and PhDs require the crème de la crème. Chris Wilcocks, spokesman for Unite, talks of " top-tier properties with double beds, flat-screen TV and the kind of spec you associate with young professionals". This comes with a price tag more suited to a life in the city than academia. You can pay £455 a week for central London, although if you happen to study in Huddersfield and are happy in a cluster it will be around £80.

Roberts is concerned that "it could create conflict if students begin to see a big discrepancy between the grotty digs some have no choice but to live in, and those living in very smart places".

There is another side to this. Many students regard their time at university as a stage in life when they earn their badge of honour by living in places that may be much less comfortable and well appointed than their own homes. Being pampered would, somehow, undermine what they might gain in savoir faire from their student years.

Certainly this is how one former student sees it, as she told readers of The Student Room blog: "When I was a student, I lived in a ghetto. My best friend was mugged around campus twice. It was terrifying, but like all my student friends I was living in the best area I could afford. I feel a twinge of incredulity every time I see a hirsute youth [at Bristol University] emerge blearily into the streets from a £1m Clifton townhouse. Isn't one of the points about going to university the opportunity to learn about finding out what it means to live on the edge, fending for yourself... learning the simple life skills?"

Brown, who is not yet sure what he will do when he completes his PhD, does not take such critics to heart. "I lived in halls of residence and a shared house earlier in my studies, so I learned about living that sort of life. Now I have to face a steep learning curve, and having a place where I can simply concentrate quietly is very welcome. But there is one drawback – beer is 30 per cent more expensive in this area than where my friends live!"