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Elections, AI and net-zero: What does 2024 have in store for PBSA?

15 January 2024

With 2024 likely to be an election year, change is on the horizon – but how might the political landscape and broader long-term trends affect higher education and student accommodation over the coming year?

Jenny Shaw, External HE Engagement Director, takes a look at the landscape to predict what we might see this year in Higher Education and purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).

Political uncertainty is likely to dominate 2024, creating wider uncertainty about what the future holds. There are fundamental issues in higher education that are unlikely to be resolved this year: the deficit in funding for UK undergraduate students and the below-inflation rises in the student maintenance package, despite the cost-of-living inflationary pressures

In the early 2010s, then-Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg exemplified the perils of making promises about undergraduate finances, making it much less likely that any party will commit themselves in this area ahead of the election. Changes that may eventually be announced will not come into effect until later in 2025 at the very earliest, and we can expect continuing pressure on the budgets of universities and students alike throughout this year.

In the run up to the election we may also see an intensifying of culture war rhetoric, especially on ‘wedge issues’, as parties work to mobilise their supporters. If the public debate over recent years is anything to go by, this seems likely to include two topics close to the heart of higher education and student accommodation: immigration, and diversity and inclusion.

Early in December, the government announced a bar on international taught postgraduate students bringing dependants into the UK. As my colleague Bernadette Cochonat recently pointed out, this change is most likely to affect emerging markets in West Africa and India who are more likely to want to bring dependants.

This takes place within a trend of growth for international student demand, and there is still potential for universities to focus more strongly on markets such as China, who are less likely to bring dependants, and on undergraduates and postgraduate research students who are unaffected by the changes. However, if Indian and Nigerian students are deterred from studying in the UK due to the new restrictions, it could have an impact on  universities that recruit significantly from these countries, and on the broader sector aspiration to diversify student recruitment. With the graduate route for international students also under review, this creates further uncertainty next year.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we have become accustomed to hearing dissenting voices in politics and the media. However, as UCAS and HESA figures – and our own Applicant Index – continue to show, the student body is becoming more diverse every year. There is increased diversity in terms of ethnicity and culture, sexual and gender identity and disability, with ‘hyper-diversity’ in the largest cities such as London.

This creates a growing demand for inclusive practices in higher education and student accommodation simply through market forces. Nonetheless, there is a risk that such initiatives could becoming talking points, attracting contentious discourse that focuses on increasing division rather than the needs of students themselves. In addition, residential life teams may find themselves increasingly called upon to support residents to navigate living with people from different backgrounds and beliefs – or to deal with the fall-out when these differences lead to conflict.

Looking beyond the political landscape, there are two long-run trends that will affect higher education and student accommodation in 2024, and these are climate change and artificial intelligence.

We’re already seeing student accommodation respond proactively to the climate challenge through the development of net-zero pathways, sustainable construction methods – such as those outlined in our Sustainable Construction Framework, published in December – and more efficient buildings. There are some good examples of engaging students in sustainable living, but limited evidence that students are demanding more sustainable accommodation in the way that investors are. PBSA providers can support universities in this area by sharing their emissions data for inclusion in their partners’ Scope 3 emissions reporting. As with everything else, any future legislative drivers won’t be known until the end of the year at the earliest.

However, there are other considerations that may arise – not from the drive to avert future impacts, but the need to address the emerging reality of climate change. These include ensuring buildings are more resilient to severe weather events, and that they can be made comfortable for students in increasingly hot weather. While it may still be too early to take action on existing estate, it will need to be a consideration for new builds and to be on the strategic agenda more broadly.

And then we come to AI. I feel very comfortable sharing that I’ve used ChatGPT and Bing’s Copilot to help me draft this article; it’s useful for fact retrieval and to help with structuring. But rather than being a time saver, it creates a different kind of work – in developing the right prompts, then editing the output into something readable. Nonetheless it is part of my toolkit now, just as it is for many of us. As new releases become more sophisticated, we’ll need to keep learning how to get the best out of them.

But, much as higher education has had to adapt rapidly to the use of generative AI tools,  AI needs higher education just as much – it makes those higher-level skills such as expert judgement and critical thinking all the more important. 2010s predictions that the traditional degree would be swept away by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) now seem less likely.

This is good news for the future of purpose-built student accommodation – and it opens up new opportunities for PBSA to add value to students through initiatives that help them develop these skills in a residential and community setting.

Uncertainty makes it challenging to plan ahead and can leave us feeling disempowered, but we can be certain of two things: firstly, that our universities are an enduring area of strength for us as a nation and this should lead, eventually, to the political will to resolve funding issues; and secondly, that in an uncertain world our students need us more than ever.

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