What you need to know about postgraduate accommodation
Accommodation Matters brings sector experts together to discuss the Higher Education sector’s key issues through the lens of student accommodation.
This month, we’re exploring the postgraduate accommodation market, asking: who are the UK’s postgraduates? What do they want from their accommodation? And what are the challenges they face in accessing it?
Host Darren Ellis is joined by an expert panel made up of:
- Rebecca O’Hare, Assistant Director (Residence Life & Accommodation Office) at the University of Leeds
- Fiona Maingi, Digital Marketing MSc student at Royal Holloway, University of London
- James Ballard, Innovation Manager at Unite Students
We’re also joined by special contributors Dr Diana Beech – CEO at London Higher – to give us a picture of postgraduate numbers, trends and motivators, and Caroline Persaud, Registrar at Goodenough College, to share a case study on Goodenough College’s specialist postgraduate accommodation offer.
You can read more about Unite Students’ postgraduate building trial here.
You can subscribe and listen to the episode now on Spotify, Google, Amazon, Apple Podcasts, or below through Podbean. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t hesitate to leave a 5* review – we’d love to hear from you!
‘Postgraduates’ accommodation needs’ conversation transcript:
Darren Ellis: Welcome to Accommodation Matters, where today we’re looking at postgraduate students. Making up approximately a quarter of the UK student population, this cohort is sometimes neglected in conversations about purpose-built student accommodation. Today, we’ll be learning more about who they are, what they want, and how PBSA providers can respond to this rapidly growing market.
I’m Darren Ellis, Higher Education Engagement Director for Unite Students, and as usual, I have an expert panel with me today. Please, can I ask you to introduce yourselves and to say where you are joining us from?
Rebecca O’Hare: Hello, my name is Rebecca O’Hare and I’m the Assistant Director of Residence Life in the accommodation office at the University of Leeds.
Fiona Maingi: My name is Fiona Maingi. I’m an international student currently based in London doing my Masters degree in Digital Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London.
James Ballard: I’m James Ballard, I’m an Innovation Manager here at Unite Students and calling in from London today.
Darren: Thank you very much – a warm welcome to all.
Before we get into the panel discussion, we caught up with Dr Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher, to find out a little bit of background on the postgraduate market in the UK, how it’s changing and what this means for the future.
Dr Diana Beech: Hi, I’m Diana Beech and I’m chief executive of London Higher, the representative body for over 40 universities and higher education colleges across London.
Postgraduates are a significant part of the student body here in the UK and postgraduate students are also studying for a wide range of qualifications. Some are enrolled on taught master’s courses. Some are postgraduate research students, either studying for research Masters degrees or PhDs, and then others are enrolled on more applied postgraduate courses so things like PGCEs – that’s teacher training qualifications.
Now, most postgraduate students in the UK do tend to study full time. Although the number of postgraduate students choosing to study part-time has also increased to about 142,000. As for where postgraduate students study, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data tells us that there’s two London institutions that take the largest numbers of postgraduates; that’s University College London (UCL) and King’s College London. However, they are followed closely by the universities of Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, and Edinburgh.
Most postgraduate students are in fact domestic students, with 453,000 postgraduate students coming from across all four parts of the UK. The postgraduate student population has been steadily growing in the UK over the last 10 years; the growth has been seen in both the international and the domestic market.
Let’s take the domestic student market first – and we have to remember that UK students are now eligible for master’s loans from the Student Loans Company, just as they can get undergraduate student loans. I think it’s really since these loans were introduced in 2016/17, that we’ve seen numbers in the postgraduate talk market rise.
Then if we look to the international market, I think what we’re seeing here is basically a big push for a greater market share in the UK. I can’t stress enough that the postgraduate student experience is every bit just as important as the undergraduate student experience, and universities need to be working hard to ensure that postgraduate students leave fully satisfied with the time that they’ve had on their courses.
Now, of course, postgraduate students are all different. There is no one size fits all model to follow, but I do think that with many postgraduate taught courses, only one or two years in length, the perception of postgraduates and international postgraduates, in particular, is largely based on this very short period of time. We’ve got to make sure that it’s a happy one and we’ve got to make it count.
Wellbeing support throughout the postgraduate life cycle is also paramount, particularly given the stresses and strains of one-year courses. These are intense courses, and also let’s not forget postgraduate researchers who can either find themselves working long hours in labs or isolated as can be the case for arts and humanities researchers who find themselves working alone in libraries or in archives day in, day out.
It’s a unique pressure, and with postgraduate students typically being that little bit older, some may also need support with balancing their wider student life and extracurricular activities with their family or their work commitments. I do think that whatever their circumstance, what today’s postgraduate students ultimately want from their time at university is to feel that they belong, to feel just as valued as the wider undergraduate student body around them, and to feel that their institutions are setting them up for success.
I do think postgraduate accommodation is every bit as important as well. You’ve got to bear in mind that postgraduates don’t always stay at the same university where they did their undergraduate. They need a different type of accommodation.
Not only do they not want to be with – I don’t want to stereotype, but – the partying undergraduates, they also might need larger accommodation to accommodate their partner, their spouse, and their children. I do think accommodation providers and universities do need to be thinking about accommodation that works for the whole student body, and that’s not just undergraduates, that’s postgraduates with their different life experiences and commitments too.
Darren: Thank you to Diana for that insightful primer. Can I first ask the panel if there was anything in particular that resonated with you from Diana’s comments, and Rebecca, can I come to you first on that one?
Rebecca: I think Diana alluded to it, but she talked about the change in demographic of postgraduate students, particularly those with partners and families. For me, that’s something that’s also within the postgraduate student experience. It’s not really talked about a lot as well. At Leeds, we have a really large provision of family accommodation. Probably one of the largest in the UK, I could confidently say. I’m working with Unipol, we have quite a range of accommodation and unfortunately, a really high demand and waitlist for it as well.
Year on year, I think this is down to Leeds’s reputation as a research university, and we have more students who are coming with partners and with families who are looking for one-bed flats, two-bed, three-bed flats, and to support that we also work with Unipol to deliver a bespoke residence life program for families as well.
Again, that’s something you hear a lot about, and we also within our accommodation team have a dedicated member of staff who works directly with our postgrad families to support them and match them up with properties and get them exactly what they need.
Darren: Lovely. That’s fascinating, and you’re absolutely right. We don’t really tend to hear so much about postgrad families and the different requirements that they may have.
Rebecca: As you can imagine, it’s very different from the undergraduate or the standard postgraduate residents I’ve experienced. When the team presents to me every couple of months their plans for it or how it went, it’s a lot of teddy bear picnics and trips to the beach, and a lot of children are involved and it’s really fantastic.
It’s very bespoke, but it’s for the needs of those particular families, and actually what I find is it really helps those families adjust because a lot come from other countries and different cultures and it helps them meet people who are balancing that kind of demanding study as well as a growing family. It’s a really lovely program. It’s one of my favourite elements of the ResLife offering that we have here.
Darren: That cultural acclimatisation you refer to, that’s fantastic. What a way to achieve that. Fiona, was there anything that really struck you about Diana’s comments there?
Fiona: I think what resonated for me the most was when she talked about the fact that the majority of postgraduate students are actually domestic and not international, and I think that I can actually attest to that, in terms of the people that I study with and in my accommodation as well. I have come to realise that domestic students actually prefer to live alone, as opposed to international students, who prefer to live in student accommodation because it’s a lot more convenient. I think those stats were quite interesting to learn about.
Darren: I was struck by that as well, and it’s also interesting, Fiona, because some universities, many universities do offer international postgraduates and accommodation guarantee, but very few actually offer UK postgraduates and accommodation guarantee and that might contribute, but really interesting. Thank you very much. James, anything that really struck you about Diana’s comment?
James: Yes. A couple of bits, the first having just finished some postgraduate study myself on a part-time basis, the reference to stressful nights of long hours and extended periods of isolation in my spare room definitely resonates. Then I think just the general growth that she was talking about in the sector is something we’ve seen reflected at Unite which we’ll go into a bit more detail I’m sure shortly, but as a result, there’s been increasing focus on this group from our point of view. What do they need and how we can help them achieve success.
Darren: Lovely. Thank you. I’d like to move on now, please, and Fiona, I’d like to come to you if I may. As our postgraduate panellist, I’d be interested in hearing a little bit about what inspired you to take up postgraduate study and whether it was something you always planned to do.
Fiona: There’s a couple of reasons why I decided to take up postgraduate study. One was because I had a change in career prospects. I studied one thing for my undergrad and realised that I don’t want to pursue it, and I thought, okay, maybe let me do a postgraduate degree and specialise in something which could also make me more attractive in the job market and three because I wanted to experience a different part of the world. I thought, why not come to London and also get a new experience, make new friends, make new connections. Those are the three reasons why I decided to take up postgraduate study.
Darren: You chose to do your postgraduate in a different city to which you obtained your undergraduate degree. What was your thought process for doing that? Was it just exploring London and a new city, or was there anything else driving that?
Fiona: Mostly exploring a new city and also I’m looking into perhaps getting a job here as well. I think that also pushed me to come to London and I think I’ve always used education as a means of travel. I did my undergraduate in South Africa, I’m from Kenya. I think for me, it’s also a way to explore the world, make new friends, have new experiences, and open myself to all the opportunities available to me without limiting myself.
Darren: Thank you very much. Rebecca, what demand are you seeing at Leeds for postgraduate accommodation? Is this primarily from domestic or international students?
Rebecca: I would say that we see demand from both. Pre-pandemic, we were experiencing rapid growth in the postgraduate market and, of course, it fluctuated during COVID. From an international perspective, we were negatively affected last year. In fact, in the 2021 academic year at the University of Leeds, the number of full-time postgraduate students fell by over just 9%.
Given the university’s strong reputation for research anchored by excellent schools, like the school of law and the business school, the international demand, particularly from China is recovering and I can see that in the accommodation applications coming through to our office. There are also some emerging markets like Nigeria and increasing numbers from India and Pakistan too.
Darren: You talked about a period where you actually saw some decline, was that in applications or people who actually physically arrived?
Rebecca: We were down just over 9% in terms of the number of students in comparison to the previous pre-COVID year.
Darren: That is quite a drop and the obvious reasons around visas and travel and so on. What are you seeing for 22/23 then? Are you seeing a bounce back in fortunes in that respect?
Rebecca: Absolutely. That’s how I describe it, bounce back. When we compare it to numbers pre-pandemic, we’re actually seeing similar application numbers, if not a little bit higher compared to the same point pre-pandemic. We’re feeling a bit more confident about that.
Darren: That’s great news. What’s your sense at the moment of the ability of those students to actually arrive? You talked about the bounce back in Chinese students. How confident is the university that they will actually be able to arrive here given that they are often here for just one year, what’s your confidence levels?
Rebecca: I think there are still concerns about where the Chinese students are still able to travel in the numbers that they would’ve done pre-pandemic. A lot of people, myself included, are watching what’s happening in China very closely. There are still lockdowns happening. There are extended lockdowns in different regions. Over the previous two years, we saw universities come together and mandate flights to get students over to the country if possible – will that happen this year? Who knows? It’s being watched really, really closely.
I think people are quietly confident that students will be able to travel. Certainly, when I look at the range of communication coming into our team, students are not talking in the same way about not being able to travel in the way they were in the previous two years. That gives me a bit of confidence as well. In saying that, COVID instances are increasing across the UK, who’s to say that won’t happen in China as well or in other countries. It’s definitely one to watch. It makes me a little bit wary.
Darren: Thank you very much. James, what are we seeing at Unite Students with regard to postgraduate demand?
James: I would say our experience at Unite Students has probably reflected the wider industry where numbers have grown steadily over 10 years and then been particularly high actually in terms of overall proportion of our students in 21/22. Then in terms of 22/23, there is strong demand overall, but maybe not quite to the same level as 21/22 given that that was probably the peak of the pandemic at that point. I guess in times of economic crisis and turbulence people often turn to education.
With that in mind, our overall proportion of students that are postgraduate may drop slightly, but the demand is still strong. We’re still seeing some good demand from China, fingers crossed they’re all able to arrive as planned in September.
The challenge for us probably for the coming year is the fact that we have performed very well in terms of sales so far in key postgraduate cities such as Manchester and Glasgow – we have all but sold out. The challenge might be for us is essentially one of trying to accommodate students when the peak in the postgraduate market comes later on in the summer.
Darren: Thank you. Actually, you raised a really interesting point then – so I’d like to come to you Rebecca if I may, just in terms of when are the peaks for the postgraduate application market because there is a different rhythm to postgraduate applications than say the typical undergraduate process through UCAS.
Rebecca: There definitely is a particular rhythm to it. I’m glad that you describe it in that way. I feel like in one sense because I’ve been at the University of Leeds less than two years, I’m still trying to figure that out a little bit because it seems to fluctuate especially coming off the back of COVID, but it’s also sometimes dependent on when offers are going out from retrospective schools. We’re held to that in one sense. I remember someone contacting me and saying, “I’ve had offers from two other universities, but I really want to go to Leeds – what’s happening?”
Apparently, offers haven’t gone out yet. I can’t comment on the individual school. I don’t work in that particular department, but sometimes you’ll see a massive spike because offers have come out from particular big schools or big departments. It can fluctuate. I feel like the last three months you’ve had a really big spike where students are deciding, “I’m absolutely going to come to Leeds.”
Darren: Lovely. Thank you very much. Can I come back to you, James, for a moment? You’ve obviously been very close to our own postgraduate offer at Unite Students. When you were first exploring the postgraduate experience, what insights did you get about postgraduate needs? What was it that sparked the need if you like for postgraduate-focused accommodation?
James: I suppose at Unite, we’ve quite naturally attracted postgraduate students, particularly international ones over a number of years. We’re a trusted brand, we’ve got good locations, we’re quite a safe bet – but I think in digging into postgraduate student needs, we found that as a business, we could probably do more to enhance the customer experience for this group. I would summarise the key areas that we found in speaking to some postgraduate students as to areas that we needed to focus in on.
The first was a keenness to be amongst like-minded students. Where possible, collecting postgraduate students together in one block or one accommodation. The second was about property look and feel and there was a desire to have perhaps a more mature muted field to the property versus some of our other products.
Then in terms of service, I think there’s a preference to have a less intrusive service from our teams and to live a little more independently than perhaps some of our other student groups. Then lastly, there was a preference for additional service elements that enabled the focus on study. It got us thinking about how we could reduce the daily hassles for our post students to their lives easier, essentially giving them time back to focus on what’s important to them.
Darren: Thank you. You focus quite a bit there on the nature of the community that you might build around postgraduates wanting to be with other postgraduates and like-minded individuals if you like and you talked about the service offer, is there anything in the product offer that is something that you are particularly considering at the moment?
James: To reduce the daily hassles, there are things that we’ve been exploring like providing a grab-and-go breakfast, delivering parcels to bedrooms to just prevent that having to go and pick them up from the desk, offering different cleaning options are a couple of examples.
Darren: Fiona, coming back to you, what are some of the things that in your experience are most important to the postgraduate accommodation experience? Is there anything you really appreciated or anything you wished you’d had in your accommodation?
Fiona: There’s a couple of things, actually. In my accommodation, I’m pretty much mixed with undergraduate students. It’s been a bit of a challenging living condition I won’t lie. I think one of the things that is important, the postgraduate living experience is having a sense of community and living with people that are pretty much on the same journey as you, living with fellow postgraduate students.
I can tell you because undergraduate students and postgraduate students have very little in common and sometimes it’s a little bit challenging to find a middle ground because you have undergraduate students that like to throw parties and all of that stuff which leads on to my next point. I think as a postgraduate student, I really value peace, quiet, a serene environment. A lot of times with postgraduate, we’re studying but we are also young working professionals and we want to be in an environment that is noise-free so that we can concentrate, we can study, we can also get work done.
Another thing I would say is having amenities, just good amenities such as spacious study areas, such as having a cafeteria inside an accommodation building which could make life so much easier. I can just grab a coffee on my way out. Then I would say even a gym, having a gym in the building would be really important for some people. Such kinds of amenities would make life a lot better. Then the last one would be having activities organised for us that could enable us to mingle, interact, network.
I think with postgraduate students, there’s a misconception that it’s all work and absolutely no play which is false, who do want to have fun and sometimes we struggle to find that balance. Being in an accommodation where perhaps there is that initiative taken to organise certain events that could help us go out there and have fun would be something I wish I also had.
Darren: I really understand that sense of belonging, that sense of community, but it’s really fascinating to hear how passionate you are about that in the context of your wider studies, how actually it helps support your academic achievement on the back of it. Really thought-provoking stuff. Thank you very much. Rebecca, are these themes that you’ve heard consistent with what you are hearing from postgraduate students at Leeds, and does it align with your own recent experience of having been a postgraduate?
Rebecca: There’s so much of what James and Fiona said that I can completely resonate with. It’s true. Postgraduate students want to live with postgraduate students and often given their life experience or experience studying at another university or living in another city or country while doing their undergraduate degree, they really understand themselves better. They know what they like and what they don’t.
They have an understanding of what environment makes them thrive. They’re keen to replicate that and live with others, who they consider to be like minded. When Fiona mentioned about activities for postgraduate students fully enough, we have hall execs in all of our properties. The ones that are the most successful are actually the ones in the postgraduate communities so it’s true what she says.
It’s not all work and no play. They completely want that outlet as well. My own personal experience is probably slightly different than that. I study part-time and primarily from a distance and so I didn’t have the requirement for accommodation except on the weekends or occasional weeks when I travelled from Manchester to Cambridge, in which case I went to a Premier Inn or a decent Airbnb – but what I find really interesting about the part-time postgraduate experience is the difference in connection you may or may not have to your university.
While I’m proud of what I achieved, I didn’t and still don’t feel a strong connection to the university. I wasn’t part of a bustling campus.
Darren: Again, it’s that point about that? You had a great academic experience there, but that social experience would’ve made the difference and actually led to a greater connection to the university.
Rebecca: Absolutely, and then by proxy, I probably would be then considered a better alumni or a more proud alumni. Then maybe I would contribute as alumni, which is a big area in the sector also.
Darren: Thank you for that. Now we’re now joined by another very special guest, Caroline Persaud from Goodenough College, to share a little bit about their specialist, postgraduate provision.
Caroline: Hello, my name’s Caroline Persaud and I’m the registrar at Goodenough College. Goodenough College is in central London, we’re a halls of residence founded in the 1930s and purely for postgraduate students. Right from the beginning, we were founded for postgraduate students. We have 580 accommodation units all based in 1 Georgian Square in central London.
We house about 700 students in total and that’s a wide range from single people to couples and families. In addition to rooms for people with specific needs and disabilities. One of the aims of our founder, Frederick Crawford, Goodenough in the 1930s was to create a diverse community in London where people would come together, live together and gain a mutual understanding of each other’s backgrounds, culture, and they’d go away with a much wider education than their narrow field of study, which they might have come to London to study.
We have £600,000 of funding this year towards scholarships and bursaries for those that wouldn’t be able to live with us otherwise. Each year we form a community and there’s an amazing array of events that we do. The idea is to push people together, but also to move them out of their own field of study to interact with others.
I think postgraduates specifically want to live with other postgraduates. I think that would be their first aim if they’re not looking at the private market. I think people searching for postgraduate accommodation, then finding Goodenough College, and then looking at the array of events that we have. In fact, last night, we had a law dinner and that was followed by an evening lecture.
We have a colloquium on the issues of contemporary migration and our Dean will be in Northern Ireland. He’s leading a study trip there to talk about the troubles. We have people from really diverse backgrounds. We work with various organisations to select scholars from places like Sub-Saharan Africa. We work with CARA, the Council for At-Risk Academics, to bring over people who are fleeing conflict in their home country and are at risk.
There’s a huge range of people, and every year what we want to do is select a community that is as diverse as possible. That’s diverse in every sense of the word. We take part in the Global Student Living Index and actually we’ve won the best specialist accommodation in that award category every year since 2013 – I feel a bit embarrassed about that!
It means that others entering that category feel that they have no chance because Goodenough always wins. One of the ones that we are really proud of though is in 2019, we won the Championing Diversity Award in the Pioneer Awards. That was for our scholarship programs. Those that live here, absolutely love living here. We see it in feedback surveys and we see it in awards and things like that but hearing it from the students themselves is much more valuable than, than those kinds of plaudits.
Darren: Thank you, Caroline. Very interesting and lots for our panel to think about. An open question to all of our panellists, what aspects of Goodenough College’s offer most stood out to you? Can I start with you first on this one, Fiona.
Fiona: I think what stood out to me the most about Goodenough College offer is how well they’ve been able to tailor their accommodation to meet specific needs and wants of different postgraduate students. There is definitely an element of inclusivity because I think oftentimes this demographic is very diverse and I think that is often overlooked. I think the way that they’ve been able to tailor their accommodation to cater to different people is very, very commendable.
Darren: Yes. That really came through, didn’t it? I just wondered also James, what are your reflections of what you heard from Caroline? Was there anything in particular that stood out for you?
James: I think the main thing that she mentioned was, again, that desire for postgraduate students to live amongst other postgraduate groups, to what you talked about earlier, Fiona, of that experience mixing with undergrads. I have never heard a postgrad student at any point ever tell me that they really liked the fact that they were in and amongst other year groups during their accommodation experience whilst a postgraduate student. I think that really just resonated.
Darren: Rebecca, what stood out for you?
Rebecca: I really resonated with word of mouth. I find that a lot of especially international PG students will request and apply to live in a particular accommodation because a certain WeChat group recommends it or there’s like a leader in that group who’s the best or considers themselves to be the best English speaker who puts themselves forward on behalf of other residents to help other people apply for that accommodation.
I also think support and service and the ground masterly contributes to that. Having team members who clearly understand how difficult it can be to be a Masters or PhD student is really important. During the academic year as well, there are often points and we see spikes in the undergraduate student cohort requiring student support.
I find a difference for postgraduate students and that time is around now when they’re deep into their research and writing up the dissertations and they’re really starting to feel the heat because there’s a deadline looming. I find now in my current role in recent weeks, any support or advice I have to give to wardens and ResLife teams it’s specifically for postgraduate students, whereas at the other points in the academic year, it’s primarily the undergraduate students.
Darren: It’s interesting that they require that at the end. Is there any other particular time where postgraduates really need that support? I’ll just flag something that came up in some research I saw with Youthsight. I want to see if this resonates with you that there’s an assumption because option because international students, postgraduate students in particular are more mature, they’ve done their undergraduate study and they arrive in a new country that they have in some way less requirement to obtain that cultural acclimatisation really.
Do you find in line with that research that first six weeks at university for those postgraduates international postgraduates and UK postgraduates is critical?
Rebecca: I think it’s really critical. It’s critical for all students, regardless of what they’re studying at what level they’re studying, but certainly, for postgraduate students that transition into universities just as important, Diana alluded to it, that they want to feel like they belong, that they’re just as valued and that they’re set up for success in the same way that we place that emphasis on the undergraduates or the first year undergraduate students.
It’s just as important and I think there’s a lot of work there to do within the sector and within residents’ life teams to really nail that and get that right. We don’t have a perfect just yet, but it’s certainly something that I’m quite concerned about because Leeds as an example is a very, very culturally diverse university. We have students from about 160 countries. That brings a whole myriad of, I wouldn’t say problems, but fun things to resolve for our teams time and time again. There is a way that we need to get that grip.
Darren: Thank you. I’d like to turn to you now, James, can you tell us about the postgraduate building trial that you’ve been overseeing at Unite? Why did we embark on this journey and have the outcomes been what you expected?
James: Yes, so we designed three service propositions for the 21/22 academic year. It was essentially designed to in light of what I mentioned previously about those four key areas that we perceive that postgraduate students were keen to see in their experience. That keenness to be amongst like-minded students and that mature property look and feel a less intrusive service. Then those additional service elements, like you grab-and-go breakfasts, and you’ve added conveniences.
We built three propositions. The first was very much just focused on the like-minded student aspects. We simply marketed our properties, a couple of our properties as perfect for postgraduate in an attempt to change the demographic or dynamic within that property. We focused on properties that were already quite postgraduate-heavy and were aiming to make this not an exercise to change our demographics particularly, but just to focus in on providing a better experience for those that typically were staying in the properties.
The second one we looked at was Postgraduate Prime, which was focused on that requirement for independent living. We built a virtual reception function within our app to enable more contactless experience, also that 24/7 access as well, as well as also the property look and feel point that I mentioned. We refurbish the common spaces within those properties.
Then our third service offering, we call Postgraduate Plus, and that was all of the above previous plus, then also those additional service elements. Fiona, you’ll be pleased to know that in these properties, we’ve got a grab-and-go breakfast, but also tea and coffee on tap throughout the day. To your earlier point, we would have you covered in that regard. We’re also offering parcel deliveries to bedrooms, and the various different cleaning options we’ve tested. Then also some support for international students with their airport transfers on arrival.
The customer feedback from these three service offerings has been excellent. All properties achieved a higher-than-average net promoter score. We’re really pleased that we seem to be able to cater to that group’s needs better. As a result, we’ve refined the offer for 22/23 focusing in actually on the Postgraduate Plus service offering that I mentioned though and that full-service offering. We’ve refined the property list. We’ve got six properties from this September, and they’re also in very key postgraduate cities, so London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow.
I’m really confident as a result that this year’s proposition will be even more popular than last year, and that it’s very much here to stay.
Darren: Thank you very much. If a pilot and the trial continue to be successful, could you see this being rolled out much more significantly across the Unite portfolio?
James: I think there’s definitely some more options there. We identified prior to holding the list down to six, about 20 properties that were heavily postgrad already that we think that by adding some of these additional service elements in we may be able to better cater to the needs of that community. I do think there is scope for it to grow further.
Darren: Rebecca, does Leeds have any specialised accommodation for postgraduates?
Rebecca: It does. We have quite a lot. We have several buildings, which are oversubscribed every year, and as soon as a room becomes available, it gets snapped up again, such as demand. We review our bed spaces and often swap them around from undergraduate to postgraduate.
As an example, one of our properties, Sentinel Towers, it’s got two blocks. In 21/22, one block has postgraduate and the other was undergraduate. We’re actually going into that again this year for 22/23, but as I was saying earlier, Darren, because you have to watch so closely, it fluctuates and it brings you in a bit of a roller coaster, you go, “Okay, do I need more beds? Do I need less beds? Can I pull back?”
Our challenge then is working with Unipol and the family accommodation. There’s such a high demand for that. There is a long waitlist for it. It’s something that when we are prioritising students and prioritising different families, it’s a bit of a waiting game for those students at times, but like those postgraduate rooms in those dedicated buildings, when one becomes available, it will get snapped up. The difference is those students stay a lot longer. Some will stay for three, four, or five years depending on what particular research they’re doing.
Darren: The logical thing to do Fiona is to say you’ve heard from Rebecca, you heard from James, how does that sound to you? Are there aspects there that would really be attractive to you as a postgraduate?
Fiona: 100%. If I had known about Unite’s offer before, I definitely would have gone that route. It’s really great to see that more attention is definitely being shifted into looking at postgraduate student wants and needs as well as international student wants and needs because I can say for an international student, student accommodation is definitely the most convenient option. It’s really good to hear that there is definitely more thought that’s been put into by PBSA providers as to how they can make the student experience a lot more pleasing.
Darren: Thank you and I think it does say something, doesn’t it? About how you have the message for universities and for PBSA. How we get the message out about this different and segmented if you’d like postgraduate offer because clearly, it would have made a difference to you, had you been able to see that? That’s something that I think will definitely need to be considered. Finally, I’d like to hear from all of you, what’s one thing that would really help to create a sense of community in postgraduate accommodation? Can I start with you, Rebecca?
Rebecca: I think for some time, there’s been this understanding that in order to engage postgraduate students at a community level, you have to run wine and cheese nights, for some reason. You think of wine and cheese, you think that a postgraduate student would love that.
Don’t get me wrong, Darren, I love wine and cheese night like the next person! Actually, like any cohort of students go out and ask them, do your research. We’ve talked a lot about that in the last hour or so about what they’re saying back to us. James spoke a lot about that, and Fiona, especially as well. Go out and ask them and find out what they need. By all means, run the wine and cheese nights, but maybe do a little bit more than that.
James: We’ve talked a little bit about the importance of housing postgrads together, but that’s not the be-all and end-all, as you say. Not everyone is the same, right? There are different attitudes and preferences that exist within this student group, and it really is important, I think, for accommodation staff to get to know their particular year groups really well as quick as possible. At Unite, we send a survey out to students prior to their arrival, and we asked them for their preferences on interests, and what’s concerning prior to their upcoming year.
Then we provide that information back to accommodation staff to inform the service which thens follows in that property, and we’ve had things like in undergrad properties, current affairs being a key interest of a particular group, and you would never have thought that that would be the case necessarily, you would think perhaps that your pizza party would suffice for an undergraduate group but in fact, in those properties, the local team were able to get guest speakers in, the local MP as an example. It’s just really interesting. It really opened our eyes when we ran this survey of the differences in each property.
I would just say that the way to create that sense of community is to get to know your students in detail because also as postgraduate students, I think they are less likely to change throughout the course that year. Of course, it’s still a life-defining moment, but you’re a little bit more sure of yourself, your preferences. If you get to know those preferences early on, you can really build an experience for the rest of the year that tailors really well to those needs.
Rebecca: Something else to add on to James’s point where the pre-survey is a great idea, I love that. I’ve written that down, I’m absolutely going to steal it. Thank you very much. I’ve seen some really good projects at the universities where they work with postgraduates. Actually, if you think about why a postgraduate is there, they’re undertaken research, and what they’ve done is they’ve given them opportunities to present their research to the other postgraduate students to give back some constructive criticism.
Then they invite lectures into their communities, and they’re like these portable, changeable living-learning communities that were just the concept over in the States, but actually, they’re using that space to improve their research and to get feedback from their peers. Really, projects like that, actually, that prepares them for submitting the dissertation, or maybe they’re doing their viva as part of their PhD research are really innovative ways to actually build that sense of community and make that space a bit more, not necessarily academic, but actually, it represents what’s happening in the wider community day to day.
Fiona: Ideally, I would say, of course, having activities, events organised for us but just to echo what James said, the turn up won’t always be as expected because every student is different, and sometimes you don’t really expect that every student will want to engage in these festivities. I think coming up with a strategy as to how you can approach this, getting to know your students, and figuring out what they’re interested in is a great way to start.