Modern student accommodation: The contemporary face of 'digs'

Undergraduate accommodation has come a long way since the dreary rooms of your university years

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The Independent Online

When it comes to finding student accommodation, there is more choice than ever for today’s undergraduates. At the top of the market, there are private sector student apartment blocks with an onsite gym and launderette, while universities themselves offer a wide range of self-catered flats, from basic study bedrooms to more comfortable rooms with en suite bathroom and kitchen.

University accommodation managers ease the transition from home to campus. “I think the majority cope really well. They want an environment where they have a safety net of support structures,” explains Lynne Walker, head of accommodation services at the University of Nottingham.

As a general rule, universities guarantee a place in halls for all first-year students. Those students entering through Clearing may not always get into a hall of residence, but universities will always help to find them accommodation as close to campus as possible. 

The quality of student accommodation plays an important part in helping undergraduates feel at home. “At Sheffield, we have ‘student villages’, and a wide choice of options,” says Jayne Conboye, Sheffield University’s accommodation services operations manager. “We’ve moved away from the old model of catered halls and now 82 per cent of our accommodation is en suite and self-catered.”

Sheffield provides pastoral care in the form of a service called Residence Life. The university’s 80-strong team of part-time mentors, usually final-year or postgraduate students, buddy with new students and provide a friendly face to help them sort out any problems in settling in and finding their feet in the bustling university city. Student satisfaction has increased as a result. “We were voted First for Good Accommodation and First for Student Experience in this year’s Times Higher Education Awards,” says Conboye.

Rental charges vary across the country but are highest in London and the south-east where property is in short supply, or in a regional city. At the University of East London (UEL), for example, the rent for a room in an apartment on campus ranges from £120 for a basic study bedroom with shared facilities to £160 a week for a larger room with en suite facilities. This is broadly comparable with the typical £150 a week students pay to rent privately in neighbouring Newham.

By contrast, weekly rentals range from £90 for a basic self-catered study bedroom on campus to £148 for a large en suite room at the University of Nottingham. It is worth bearing in mind that rent for university-owned accommodation will always include energy and lighting costs and - more often than not - free wi-fi and an ethernet connection. 

Being able to choose from a range of different types of accommodation is helpful for students. The University of Nottingham, for example, offers seven different categories of student room for its 6,626 undergraduates and 982 postgraduates who live in university-owned or university-managed apartments. The variety and high standard is also boosted by Nottingham University’s partnership with private providers UPP, Unite Students, Unipol and Derwent House.

“We benchmark the cost of accommodation across all of our providers to ensure that price and quality are consistent,” explains Walker.

Offering high-quality student accommodation across the UK and Scotland, private provider Unite Students operates over 100 different apartment buildings in more than 20 university cities across the UK. Students can complete an online checklist to help determine their priorities. After selecting a town or city, they can make a selection based on price and distance from the campus or city centre.

Budgeting can be a major stumbling block for young people who have just left home for the first time. The University of Sheffield, for example, encourages its students to work out a weekly and termly budget by letting them know the total rent payable over the whole 42-week academic year. “Being able to see the annual figure helps students decide how much they need to set aside from their loan,” explains Conboye.

Nottingham offers its students the option of making phased payment to cover the cost of accommodation. “It’s difficult at the early stages of the application process when students don’t know how much money they have to play with. If students are reliant on loan funding, we offer them payment plans,” says Walker.

From the second year onwards, many students prefer the greater independence from living off campus. Some universities offer letting information service, vetting private landlords and keeping up-to-date lists of suitable flats or houses for rent. “Our website contains information and a guide on looking for accommodation in the private sector, and the students’ union runs a lettings shop as well,” says Jane Higgins, customer relations assistant at the University of the West of England (UWE).

When renting privately, bills and other overheads such as council tax are extras that are not included in the price. Students are also advised to check contracts with the landlord for onerous terms, such as the retention of deposit money to pay for cleaning.

In spite of all the advice on offer, the experience of arriving in a big city can seem overwhelming to new students. Birkbeck, University of London recruits an increasing number of full-time undergraduates from the UK and overseas.

“Students usually contact us first if they are looking for accommodation,” says Birkbeck, University of London international marketing and support officer Sarah Whitaker. “We direct them to the information on the website about the different options available, and to the University of London Housing Services (ULHS) who can advise them further.”

So, what gems of advice do accommodation managers share? “We ask new students to complete an online induction which contains a budget breakdown so they can see what they are committing to,” says Michael Donnan, accommodation manager for the University of East London. “For anyone considering renting in the private sector, our advice is to visit the accommodation first before signing any agreement and make sure you understand the terms and conditions in the contract.”

Make students feel at home from day one is the advice from Sheffield’s Jayne Conboye. “We send all new students an e-induction pack and we make sure that moving-in weekend goes smoothly by phasing the move over two days,” she says. “It’s a stressful time for students. But at the end of the weekend we give everyone a big Sheffield welcome.”

Case study: 'My advice is to be flexible about what you want from a flatshare’

Liam Ross, 22, graduated in 2013 from the University of Nottingham with a joint honours degree in English and history. He recounts his experience of living in halls and a student flatshare.

“In my first year I got a place in a hall of residence, Broadgate Park, two minutes from the campus. It was run by a private company, UPP, in partnership with the university. I chose it because it was self-catered. I wanted the freedom to choose my own meal times, and a bit of independence.

At Broadgate Park we lived seven to a flat with a communal kitchen and two bathrooms with shower. We had a study bedroom each with access to the university’s wi-fi and a plug-in ethernet connection for our laptops.

At the end of the first year I got together with a group of friends and we looked for a house to rent off campus. It was a scary step to take, particularly as everyone had a different agenda, such as how much they wanted to pay and how much space we thought we could afford. So we started roaming the streets and looking on the internet, setting up appointments with landlords.

We looked in Lenton, a Nottingham suburb half an hour from the campus. There are lots of mid-range terraced houses for rent. We found what we were looking for and were first in the queue as we were well-prepared. The landlord came round to our halls, and we all signed a rental agreement and paid a cash deposit.

I was on the lowest level of student loan, so my parents helped me out until the end of my second year when I got a part-time job.

My advice to undergraduates starting this autumn is to be flexible about what you want from a student flat. I had no preconceptions when I went to uni. Living away from home is all about making friends.”

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