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Five things we learned from the Student Accommodation 2021 Conference

10 December 2021

Jenny Shaw, our Higher Education External Engagement Director, attended and spoke at this year’s Property Week Student Accommodation Conference. Here are her key takeaways from the event – as well as three insights we shared.


1. The only way is up

Nick Hillman shared HEPI’s analysis showing that there will be over 350,000 more potential students in ten years’ time, and that the appetite for university shows no sign of waning. However, geopolitics will play a strong role in the desire of international students to come to the UK – so there is a potential for disruption.


2. Blending into the metaverse

The futurist Tom Cheesewright proposed that within the next decade, the digital world will not sit behind a screen but integrate seamlessly with our day-to-day world, for example through glasses. Smart devices will adapt our environment to our personal needs. Developers need to be thinking now about how to futureproof student accommodation, investing in the most frictionless and intuitive technology solutions. In the shorter term, blended learning leads to new requirements for sound control, heating and cooling, and access to natural light within accommodation.


3. Partnership, partnership, partnership

The financial investment in student accommodation by the private sector has been welcomed by universities, but investing in partnership is just as important. Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, urged private PBSA operators to be true partners to universities and make the effort to communicate well. They should work together with universities based on an end-to-end commitment to student welfare – something that the best companies already do.


4. Extended adolescence

Referring back to Unite Students’ data from an earlier panel, Tom Cheesewright presented the 20-year trend of young people delaying their move to independence. They are increasingly outsourcing aspects of adult life, so a higher level of service is appealing. Student Crowd data showed the importance that site teams have on student satisfaction, and that an events programme leads to higher satisfaction. Almost all sessions touched on mental health, building a community and the importance of a service-led culture. Nick Hillman talked about the mental health crisis, and panel on affordability agreed that mental health trained staff are now a basic requirement in PBSA.


5. Net-Zero Luxury

Environmental sustainability is important to everyone, and investors now have a canny eye on a building’s environmental performance. Tom Cheesewright predicted a trend towards sustainable living without compromising on luxury or price. For student accommodation, sustainability will be a clear market differentiator, but may not attract a premium in its own right.


Three things we shared

  1. Student Crowd’s data on the impact of site teams was not a surprise to us. This is something we also see in feedback and reviews, and it may be linked to the higher involvement of parents in young people’s lives. Students are used to their parent being there for them, especially during Covid, and so they are accustomed to having older adults on hand for advice and support. As our recent podcast showed, this is part of a longer-term trend. A supportive, service-led environment meets the key needs and expectations of today’s students, and site teams have never been more important.
  2. While physical safety is hugely important, psychological safety also plays a crucial role in students’ experience in their accommodation. In our applicant survey in June this year, over 90% of prospective students wanted to feel a sense of belonging while at university, but around 6 in 10 were anxious that they wouldn’t fit in. We’re now paying attention to this need by ramping up our community building activities alongside a new inclusion strategy.
  3. Everyone in the sector is aligned on the need for action on climate change. It is students’ number one concern when asked about the most urgent priorities for world leaders. They are also prepared to take action: three-quarters buy environmentally friendly brands and one in five would even reject a highly paid job offer from a company with a poor environmental record. Having committed to net zero carbon by 2030, we’re preparing to publish the details of our pathway – so look out for that soon. We also continue to run Positive Impact, an expanded version of the NUS Green Impact scheme, which involved students in ensuring sustainable choices and actions are embedded within their accommodation.

Jenny recently hosted our Accommodation Matters podcast on the changing role of parents within Higher Education – available to download from all good streaming platforms:

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