What do postgraduate students want from their accommodation?
Postgraduate numbers in the UK are booming, and more are applying for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) than ever before – so, for the past two years, Unite Students has been testing postgraduate-focused accommodation offers. In this feature, we share what worked, what didn’t, and what it meant for student satisfaction.
With more than 30% of the UK’s first-year students living in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), the student accommodation offer is often shaped with their needs in mind – such as supporting a smooth transition to independent living, helping them to make new friends, or providing information on how to register with a local GP.
But students who are further along in their university journey have usually mastered these aspects of the student experience. So what does a good living experience look like for them?
Trialling postgraduate propositions
Postgraduate numbers exploded during the pandemic, and we began exploring the potential of a differentiated accommodation offer for postgraduates in spring 2021. Having already gone through the undergraduate experience, postgraduates are typically far more independent, and have more of a focus on study than socialising due to the increased demands of their courses – but they still want a community of likeminded students around them.
With this in mind, in the 2021/22 year we tested three options on buildings that already had a substantial population of postgraduate students. These ranged from branding specific properties as ‘perfect for postgrads’ on our student website – thereby creating a self-selecting community of postgraduates living in our standard buildings – to a fully tailored ‘Postgraduate Plus’ offer with additional services that would better support students to focus on their studies, such as a simple ‘grab and go’ breakfast on weekdays, parcel deliveries to their door, and free tea and coffee provisions 24/7.
Two of the propositions additionally included light-touch refurbishments to common spaces, with a new, more muted design concept which was more mature than our brighter standard branding.
To measure the success of the trial, we compared Net Promoter Score (NPS) – an index that measures customers’ willingness to promote a brand, thereby indicating their own satisfaction with a product, service or brand – for trial properties against the average regional NPS for standard offer properties.
What worked – and what didn’t
Of the new service features, the ’grab and go’ breakfast proved particularly popular. One student said: “Having breakfast available in the morning has been so convenient – it takes the burden away. It makes you feel like you’re getting better value for your money and shows that Unite Students cares for the residents.” An unexpected benefit was that the breakfast became a social experience, bringing students together.
The new colour scheme was well-received as being “really calming”, while parcel delivery to rooms was also a hit – as long as there was also an option to collect in-person if needed.
The trial also highlighted some of the provisions that didn’t prove as popular, or that would prove challenging to replicate elsewhere. One example is that, with many of our postgraduates being international students, Uber discount vouchers were made available to support airport transfers. However, only a handful of these were claimed – on several occasions, for Uber Eats deliveries.
Although there were no new service features to test out in the buildings that were marketed as ‘perfect for postgrads’, students living in these properties said they felt a real sense of reassurance being in a community of students who were embarking on the same stage of study and placed a similar premium on study-friendly surroundings.
Across the trial buildings, the NPS findings were striking: scores for the postgraduate trial properties were all higher than the regional average. This was particularly prominent for the buildings with the ‘Postgraduate Plus’ offer; Birmingham’s Athena Studios had the highest score in the country, and Glasgow’s Tramworks property had the highest score in its region.
Refining the offer for 2022/23 – and beyond
The resounding popularity of the ‘additional service’ proposition made it a clear winner, and it was a refined version of this model we took forwards in six properties – based in London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester – for the 2022/23 academic year.
When adapting the offer for the current academic year, we wanted to ensure that all additional service elements offered real value to postgraduates, were consistent across our postgraduate-focused sites, and didn’t require an additional staff presence. We continued to operate services like the grab and go breakfast, free tea and coffee on tap and parcel deliveries to the door, as well as implementing the new colour scheme in all six properties. Features like the airport transfer vouchers were removed, as they didn’t seem to add value to the student experience.
Given its popularity in the trial, we elevated the breakfast offer, such as establishing a consistent selection of items with significant variety for students’ tastes. Our postgraduate-focused buildings had a significant Chinese demographic, so five different flavours of congee – a Chinese rice porridge dish often eaten at breakfast – have been made available alongside the likes of croissants, muffins, cereal and fruit. Additionally, all elements of the breakfast are compostable, in line with our sustainability focus.
The roll-out this year has been a success, with several of the postgraduate-focused properties again ranking among the best in their region, and we are continuing the ‘Postgraduate Plus’ offer into the 2023/24 academic year. An additional service we are trialling at present is a kitchen cleaning service, which was received well in the initial trial stage.
Different stages of the student experience bring different challenges and needs. Unite Students is delighted to offer a more tailored, meaningful experience to more students – especially if we can support postgraduate students to succeed by removing just a few of the stresses of daily life.
You can hear more about the UK’s postgraduate accommodation and their needs in our Accommodation Matters episode on postgraduates: