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Modern student living projects offer new opportunities for forward-thinking providers


Rob Kay, director at MGAC

When it comes to university accommodation, we often visualise cramped halls with students packed in like sardines, but outdated bedsit-style accommodations with basic facilities, shared toilets, and a dusty common room are becoming a thing of the past for UK undergraduates. Modern student accommodations now offer high calibre living quarters with superfast broadband and ensuite bathrooms. However, it’s the social aspect which is really improving with a range of facilities such as breakout study areas, onsite gyms, cinemas, games rooms, and even karaoke booths. The standard has been raised significantly across the country in recent years as students (and their parents) are prepared to pay more for good quality space.

One key difference is that many projects are now being led by teams who aim to provide accommodation to fit the modern-day student’s needs. Research shows university students are looking for high quality accommodation with great facilities and a convenient location. New projects can include a concierge and postal collection service, as well as digitalized applications for the students to report any issues and provide feedback, which helps the property managers keep on top of any building issues and maintenance.

In addition to increasing demand for quality from both domestic and international students, we are seeing city planners and local governments putting student projects at the centre of the wider placemaking initiative for UK towns and cities. The case for better serving accommodations has also been pushed by senior university representatives. New projects are more likely to be in central locations, near to the university buildings, and include striking architecture and design features, such as communal courtyards, art installations, and green space. The standard is more akin to Build-to-Rent (BTR) product than dusty student halls of yesteryear, and with BTR developers capping the number of students in their developments, the demand is even greater for this type of accommodation.

The sector has faced several challenges in recent years. Post Brexit demand from EU students decreased, however this has been negated by the steady increase in student visas from other regions, particularly Asia and the Middle East. We also saw a steep decline during COVID-19 as many undergraduates stayed at home to complete their studies. However, this difficult period seems to have only increased the appetite for student accommodation as university goers seek an authentic experience away from their hometown.

The initial outlay for these types of projects can be significantly higher, but they are also more lucrative for providers. By commanding a higher price than standard units, developers are working with councils to future proof new projects and create additional revenue streams. For example, in Birmingham, during the Commonwealth Games last year, athletes and support teams were staying in student accommodation. This is part of a wider a strategy to maximise usage of the rooms outside of term time, which could be rolled out for conferences and accommodation for large-scale corporate events. Future proofing the spaces in this way will make schemes more viable and boost the local economy.

Significant budget is needed to get these projects off the ground. Councils can be hesitant to move them forward to ensure that the balance of student accommodation in the city is appropriate and that the design quality aligns with the rest of the city centre developments, however universities see the need to improve, and we are already seeing short-term and long-term benefits from high standard accommodation for all stakeholders. MGAC has worked on schemes in Manchester and Birmingham which are at the heart of city centre redevelopment placemaking. Young scholars are the future leaders and there are many opportunities in student living space to create projects that can serve them and the wider community both now and in the future. Contractors still tend to go for a low-rise, easier to build programmes which offer less risk; however, this sector has huge potential for many more ground-breaking student developments.