Interview: Insights into university partnership working
Moray Notman, University Partner Commercial Director, has a wealth of experience at Unite Students and has become a familiar face for many in the PBSA sector. Now, we speak to him about his reflections on over a decade in the sector: how he worked his way up from operations management; the importance of university partnerships; and what 2023 will bring for him and the wider student accommodation market.
You’ve worked at Unite Students since 2009 – how did you get started in student accommodation, and what was it that you liked about the sector?
I left university in the middle of a recession and applied for hundreds of jobs, looking for an entry-level management role. I’d studied management and loved working with customers, so the Customer Service Manager role I was offered at Unite Students was ideal. In all honesty, I hadn’t really known that the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector existed – it was an emerging industry back then – but I now understand that many people who are now in the sector had that same experience.
If I’m honest, our focus back then was on scaling up the business with much less commitment to the student experience. The recession flipped that; we realised we needed to be a strong, operationally-led business, listening to students and understanding their needs.
The variety of the student cycle across the year was really attractive to me when I was starting out. Each term is different, with students going on a journey through the academic cycle, and you get to see them grow and try new things out – that’s quite different to the hospitality sector, where you’re broadly doing the same thing all year round.
I also loved the vibrancy that students bring – they’re fun, intelligent and energetic, but also very responsive customers. That’s what I love about the sector. We’ve got a really frank but forgiving customer base, which is really satisfying: they’ll tell you when they’re happy but also when they’re not, giving you an opportunity to sort it out. Today we do a lot of research on the needs and wants of students and applicants, in order to best understand how our service and product can be adjusted to meet them – this is their home, after all.
Since then, you’ve worked your way up the organisation, from a manager in operations to being a specialist in building relationships with our university partners. How did that come about, and what are the main benefits of partnership working between universities and accommodation providers?
Over time I moved up to being Head of Operations for the North East and Scotland and, while I really enjoyed that, I was ready to do something a bit different. During my time in operations, I was really driven by thinking about the needs of our university partners and understanding what made them tick. At the same time, the business was looking to improve engagement with universities and grow our resource in this area – so it was good timing for everyone when an opportunity came up to work in the Higher Education team. The student accommodation sector is full of great characters who work really well together.
I believe that the main benefit of forming and building a strong partnership is the mutual value gained by each party. In 2022, we celebrated the extension of our partnership with King’s College London through delivering Hayloft Point, a new building in Aldgate. This gave the university an opportunity to extend their excellent King’s Affordable Accommodation Scheme, which offers rooms priced at the lowest possible rates so that students from more challenging financial backgrounds can still access student accommodation – which aligns with our value of ‘creating room for everyone’. For us, that partnership also gave us security during an extremely challenging development.
We also worked together closely on the communal space design, piloting a number of new spaces which were designed around King’s residence life programme. The ResLife team at King’s deliver engaging sessions throughout the year, such as classes on-site in our group fitness space. That development and its benefits to our partnership were one of Unite Students’ key highlights of 2022.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed about working with universities in the past decade?
The external environment has been so unpredictable in that time – from coming out of a recession, then Brexit, then Covid – and we’ve seen compounded change in so many areas that universities have had to respond on a number of different fronts. That’s been really interesting to monitor, and of course be part of. Universities have been in a strong position to withstand the changes, but more than ever they’ve had to look at defending their position and looking at the here and now to make decisions.
Since the increase to tuition fees in England in 2012, universities have been in an increasingly competitive environment. The importance of student accommodation and all its facets – the product, the service, the living environment, how that all contributes to student success – has become more and more important, all at a time where capital allocation in universities has seen competing demands.
Against that backdrop, student needs and wants are changing faster than ever. With students now arguably being seen as consumers, it’s more important for universities and those who support them to pay attention and respond to those emerging needs.
What’s the secret to a great university partnership?
Without being too corny, a strong partnership is founded on equity – both parties putting in and gaining an equal amount respective to their requirements. Our approach to university partnerships has always been led by relationships. We firmly believe that through strong connections with people within universities, and fully understanding what interests them (as well as vice versa), we get a really strong, rich partnership that’s able to weather any external challenges that are thrown our way.
What are some of your priorities for 2023, and what are you expecting for the sector in the year ahead?
We’re working on ensuring that we truly are a relationship-led partner organisation to the whole UK Higher Education sector, building on our trusted partnerships and demonstratively being the best accommodation provider in the eyes of the sector. It’s important to mention also that we’re not just looking at our own growth – we build our nomination portfolio with a view to supporting our key partner universities’ growth plans.
As for the wider sector, we’ll be seeing more about the housing crisis out there. The sector continues to see increased demand from UK students and existing international markets, and we’re also seeing faster than predicted growth in emerging markets, alongside stronger than ever demand for university places and accommodation. That’s all happening at the same time as a reduction in supply of HMO (Houses of Multiple Occupancy), and new supply of PBSA slowing down because of economic pressures. So I would expect to see provision of student housing – not just for first-year students, but across the whole student body – as a key issue for universities in 2023.
To find out what student research we have planned for the year ahead, read Jenny Shaw’s recent blog now.