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A student accommodation sector that works for students

27 September 2022

Over the summer, Jenny Shaw caught up with some rising stars in the Higher Education sector, including Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Dr Alexis Brown, and finally Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed in a Unite Students podcast mini-series, ‘In Conversation‘.

In the final episode, Victoria shares her insights with Jenny Shaw on what universities and accommodation providers need to know – and do – to make sure students have the best possible experience in their accommodation, and the challenges of overseeing codes and standards across the student accommodation sector.

You can listen to the episode at Podbean, or any good podcast platform, or read the transcript of the conversation below.


Jenny Shaw: I have with me today someone who’s been working in student accommodation for over 15 years, and it’s fair to say is probably the most influential person in the UK in terms of student accommodation standards. Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed, welcome to the show.

Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed: Hello; thanks for having me.

Jenny: Where are you joining us from today, Victoria?

Victoria: I am sitting at home in my loft in Leeds, which is where Unipol is based. I’m really happy to be here. That was quite an intro, thank you!

Jenny: Oh, I’m sure you can definitely live up to it. I’m just going to start with a big topic – I know that I’ve seen a lot of change in student accommodation over the last 10 years, but could you give a sense of how you see that things have changed since. I think it was 2005, wasn’t it, when you first came into the sector?

Victoria: Yes, that’s right. I’ve been working in student housing as you said for 15 years. I think the main change really has been the growth of the private sector as part of the relative stock, ownership of student housing. That’s meant all sorts of different changes really. I think there’s been a lot of development of the immunity level of the standard of student housing is generally very good and sometimes we say it’s probably a bit too good.

Often it’s very expensive, and that’s been one of the big stories really, I think over the last 15 or so years is the growth and cost to the student of where they’re living and that development of the level of immunity. The luxuriousness of where students live has changed quite a lot over that time. I think a lot of slightly older people think back to their time in university and remember it being a bit grotty and shared bathrooms and all being a bit grim.

It’s very, very different now. It’s a very high standard of specification and amenities laid on in the accommodation for them. That’s really nice, but I think that it definitely cuts across and it’s a lot more expensive now. On the flip side of that professionalisation of the sector, I think there has been a recognition that students need support and that – when you are 18 or 19, moving away from home and going to university – it’s helpful if you provide a bit of scaffolding around that for young people to make the most of the experience and do well.

I think a lot of the private sector have really taken up that baton over the last 10 years and providing a really supportive environment for students as well – but yes, it’s all very expensive, and I think that’s something that we’re going to have to reflect on really as a sector, and think about how we deal with that over the next 10 years.

Jenny: Yes, absolutely. I think we’ll come back to that cost point later on, but I’m interested right now, if you think there’s been a change in how people see the role of accommodation as part of the student experience.

Victoria: I think that there is a perception that student accommodation, no matter who it is provided by – and it’s increasingly provided by private companies – will provide a supportive, caring environment that’s linked into the university. Sometimes there’s that perception that the private sector and the university sector works hand in hand together and that isn’t always the case.

Unipol did some research during the pandemic about communication between private providers and universities. We found that generally levels of communication before the pandemic and even during the pandemic were really quite poor to be honest, in terms of liaison and working together to make sure that students were supported.

Student housing generally has to tackle that issue of making sure that there’s really good links between where students live and their local university. I think universities need to do a bit more to reach out to their local private providers, parents and students expect there to be a level of coordination and liaison and support, particularly when things go wrong.

Jenny: Well, it’s an issue I’m very passionate about as well. I’m wondering what you think the next steps might be. What needs to happen that level of partnership that you’re talking about to get that impact that you would like to see for students?

Victoria: For universities – particularly where they don’t have any of their own accommodation or a very limited stock – I would hope that universities would see that where their students live is a really important part of the educational experience, and therefore that they would reach out to their local private providers, network with them, involve them, share information about the institution, talk to them about what students want as partners really in the educational endeavour and not really see them as competition, but as partners really in looking after their students.

On the other side of that, I do think that private providers need to get better at student support. They need to get better at understanding issues around data protection, sharing data, sharing welfare information, so that they’re in a good place and well prepared when they need to have those conversations and ask for help for example with a student that they’re concerned about. They need to have put the work in up front and prepared to be able to share that information and to make the effort to reach out to their local university because I do believe that the vast majority of private providers are really doing a lot of work in this area.

They’re getting better. They’re investing in mental health first aid, in social programs, and they are invested in their tenants having a good time. I would hope that between universities and the private sector, there can be more partnership outside of commercial arrangements.

Jenny: It’s just interesting how you touched on the technical infrastructure that sits behind all that student welfare work, because it’s absolutely essential to be able to respond to students in the moment to know what to do, to know what the signs are and so on – but it it’s quite a technical piece of work behind the scenes to make that really work in a systematic way, isn’t it? There’s quite a lot of investment required in that.

Victoria: I think you need to develop the in-house capability, the staff expertise, the procedure and policy, just to be able to deal with the sensitive data that you’re holding to be able to have those well informed conversations with students to understand boundaries. There’s a lot of work that goes on to be able to be a useful partner; certainly the national operators all do this very well, they all understand that. In the National Code, we’ve put in a requirement that there should be staff trained in mental health support, and that’s been taken up by everybody really well.

I’m optimistic about the ability of the private sector to be able to do that well, but I think it does need the university to reach out and offer that partnership. We are getting quite a lot of feedback at the moment through the National Codes verification process that some universities are not as receptive to private providers reaching out and asking – for example – just to have a contact for welfare issues who would be the person that we speak to if we have concerns. Some universities are not as forthcoming; that’s a shame and I hope that changes.

Jenny: Yes, it’s a complex system. We’ve got so many universities and we’ve got many private providers now, and each of those private providers will have a large number of university relationships. Similarly with universities, they may be working with a number of private providers. The permutations are huge. I know you’ve been looking at around standards just to help everyone be on the same page.

Victoria: Well, on the National Codes we’re starting to think about whether there’s the potential to help with standardising some of the processes and documentation in this area. It’s definitely an area that we are interested in from the National Code and we are doing some work on whether we can provide any suggestions on key principles and some frameworks for how you can make this relationship work.

We know there’s lots of good examples of really good practice that we want to draw on and pull out and share around the sector but yes, as you say, it is complicated. The challenge is quite significant, but we do think that there is definitely potential for there to be some useful common principles that people can agree on and a framework of what is good practice in this area. I think that’s something that we’re quite interested in looking at over the next year or two.

Jenny: Thank you. As well as the codes, I know you lead on training for Unipol. I was wondering, what are the issues that student accommodation professionals are coming to you for at the moment? Quite an interesting time to be taking stock, obviously, as we we’re coming out of the pandemic. What’s topical at the moment?

Victoria: There’s so many new staff in the sector, so many people that work in student accommodation, but there’s no obvious career path into working in student housing. There’s quite a lot of new staff in the sector who have come from outside of higher education. It’s just that onboarding of new people, understanding the weird quirks and characteristics of working in higher education because I think a lot of people come into it from working in hospitality, teachers, social care, even the military sometimes could be helpful.

I think there’s quite a lot of call at the moment for a recognised qualification or some training that provides that inroad and a recognised qualification that you can take around with you as you move through the world of your career in student accommodation, there’s quite a lot of demand for that at the moment. Mental health is a big area. Whether it’s mental health first aid or something, a bit more specific, a bit more relevant to student housing, other issues at the moment that we are thinking about understanding the kind of health and safety is such a complex area.

I think if you look at the legislation around health and safety, a lot of it I think is designed for a typical house, but when you’ve got a high-density commercially operated residential building, sometimes the traditional environmental health HMO licensing approach is not relevant or doesn’t quite work, doesn’t quite understand the impact of management on these buildings. It’s about what’s in the flat, what’s behind the flat door.

I think understanding that not necessarily always complimentary network of health and safety legislation is also a really complex area for a lot of providers. I think post Grenfell with the changes that will be coming through for building safety that might simplify it slightly, but it is by no means a set of regulation that works well together. We’re going to be doing quite a lot more training on that really, really helping people in the sector to understand the health and safety requirements.

I think that’s kind of an area where we are quite interested in offering training and expanding really particularly around fire safety because in the kind of high density residential environments that we’re dealing with, you really have to have a really detailed in-depth understanding of all of the different bits of legislation and then to be able to kind of knit them together.

Jenny: Yes, I know that fire safety has gone hugely up the agenda quite rightly after Grenfell. It’s top of mind, I think, in the health and safety world in student accommodation now.

It was interesting what you were talking about in terms of a lot of new people coming into the sector. It’s always surprised me that in the United States, there’s a really clear career path for student accommodation professionals. That’s really well mapped out and established. We don’t quite have anything like that in the UK. I wonder if you think there’s going to be maybe a tipping point when that will become more the norm.

Victoria: I think so. I think as the sector grows just in size I think there becomes a point where there is an overwhelming need for there to be validation recognition of a certain level of skill. What does it take to be a competent manager of a PBSA building? Because it’s a really diverse skillset.

I know people listening to this at work in student accommodation will know that no two days are the same. We had a building where one of our very enterprising tenants decided to sell fry chicken shop in their flat using the oven. It’s funny, but also it really annoyed the other tenants. It’s like how do you deal with that? How do you explain to them? That’s not okay, they’ve wrecked the oven, they’re setting off the fire alarms. Then on the other hand, you could be dealing with remediating cladding and how do you liaise with the tenants on that or a serious mental health incident.

The range of skills that you need to have, the areas of knowledge, the competencies is so broad if you are working in student housing. I think that it would be really useful if there was a kind of a recognized qualification for accommodation managers. I think employers would find that very useful. I think the staff, it would mean a lot as well. I think we are reaching that point where we’ve got over 600,000 beds, haven’t we in the private sector. I don’t think it will be many years before we actually have some sort of recognised qualification that people can take around with them on their career.

Jenny: Yes, a level of recognition for those people, as well as a recognised career path with progression and maybe just a bit more visibility as well about what it entails.

Victoria: Yes. It’s not easy. It’s also very distinct. There are avenues you can go down, but none of them quite have the areas of knowledge that you need really to run student housing. I think that in the next five years, there’ll certainly be some sort of qualification that people can take up.

Jenny: I suppose the distinctiveness of student accommodation is that it is part of an education as well, it’s not just a place to live it’s a component of your education. I guess that broadens it out.

Victoria: Definitely. I think we are quite keen on this concept. I’m not certain that there’s much research or information available on this, about the kind of contribution that living in supportive student accommodation makes to the educational experience. I think that a lot of universities are recognising that student housing does play a real part. It’s a part of what makes being at a particular university, or going to university, unique and makes you part of that educational environment.

Funnily enough, I think that is one of the changes that’s happened over the last kind of 15 years. If I think back now in student housing, is that actually I think students are a bit more serious now than maybe when I first started out, probably because it all costs so much more than it did when I was at university back when fees were a thousand pounds a year. Going to university wasn’t quite as serious an undertaking, but I think young people now are incredibly serious about getting value for money, because they’re paying a lot and they’re making it a very sizable investment in their future.

I think the concept and idea that living in purpose-built accommodation can be really beneficial in terms of your educational experience is going to be quite important over the next five or 10 years. I think it’s going to be quite important to the ongoing success of student housing because I think the cost of living crisis. There has to be really compelling reason to live in accommodation, because I think if you come from a medium or low income background it’s really expensive.

What difference does it make to your university experience? I think as a sector we need to probably get a bit better at talking about that and explaining what difference it makes and having some research to back that up – students would say, yes, socially for me and just my kind of growth as a person, it does. But does it make a real difference to your outcomes at university and to success at university?

I think is something that we might need to look at because I think people will question that more as a cost of living squeeze means that should I go to the local uni or can I afford to travel to somewhere that would really like to go, I think will become a much more life question to parents and students.

Jenny: I think that’s really exciting. I expect we would find in the United States some maybe models to look at. I know they’re quite fond of their big quantitative surveys around this sort of thing in the United States. It’d be good to see maybe we are at that point of maturity within the sector to run something like that in the UK. It’d be very interesting to see.

Victoria: You’re right. It would be really interesting to look at that and to try and quantify what difference it makes. There is a bit of research out there about the experience of community students and some of the difficulties that they face in terms of interacting with the university and getting the most out of their experience.

Looking at that and trying to pull some of it together over the next few years is going to be quite important for us to just to ensure that we can continue to be successful as a sector and recognise what students need and want, because I think students’ needs have changed a little. I think they are less interested in some of the blingier elements of student accommodation and more interested in study space, in it being a supportive environment, in social activity, than perhaps they were a few years ago when whether it had lots of really nice amenities might have been more important.

Jenny: That’s certainly a change that I’ve noticed. I don’t know if it’s just a change in students, but also sort of within the sector and how the sector sees itself as well. Certainly I feel quite a strong drive from staff working within the sector now to say, “Okay, how can we enhance the student experience? How can we help? How can we support? How can we add value in that way?” Maybe a change in the way we see ourselves as well.

Victoria: Yes, I think so. There’s been a lot of work hasn’t there and a lot of looking over at America and the ResLife model and seeing what we can take from that and use in a UK context. I know there are lots of colleagues who are doing amazing work in developing a kind of a ResLife model that works in the UK. I think that’s really exciting. It takes specialist work and thought and time and money.

I think having that defined social and educational offer that is part of the marketing, and the offer to students who are looking at your accommodation is just going to become more and more important. I think students are really going to be weighing up, “Will this add to my time at university? If it will, then yes, I’ll pay for it. But if not, I might just choose to study somewhere locally.”

We’re starting to see that a little bit, looking at some of the data through UCAS for some universities, there’s definitely an increase in locally-based study while student numbers are going up. We know that because of the demographic increase over the next kind of decade, they were likely to be more students going to university – will they be going away to university or going somewhere local is a big question.

I think if you were to look back at the history of the development of accommodation and where students have studied, then you could assume that it all was going to be fine and students were going to continue to go away, travel to a different city to a different location, and therefore they would need accommodation. I’m not sure that that trend is quite as robust as it used to be.

I think there is some evidence that some students are going to a local institution and we’ve definitely seen that kind of change in accommodation demand happen at some of the institutions that we work with very closely. It’s definitely not a kind of absolute law of UK university life that you go away to university.

I think that there’s going to be pressure on that over the next decade. If you look back over, what’s happened in terms of the cost of going to university, when fees went up to £3,000 and when they went up to £9,000 with a lot of kind of panic and prognostication that students are just going to stay at home! All of this cost will mean that students won’t want to spend the money and live in accommodation! They’re going to stay at home and study locally! And it never happened.

I don’t know. I feel like the cost of living the levels of inflation that we’re seeing at the moment, the amount of money that people – parents – have in their pockets, has never felt as difficult. I think this is a real challenge for the sector, and we’ll have to prove our worth.

Jenny: I think the sector’s up for it. Don’t you?

Victoria: Yes, I think so. I definitely think we’ve got a good understanding of what makes a good environment for study. What good support looks like if we can work more in partnership, then I think the accommodation sector has a lot to offer to universities to say, “Yes, make us a compelling bit of your offer.” Where students live in their second and third year as well is really important. Not just in the first year when they’re on campus,

Jenny: We keep touching on cost. I think it’s absolutely right to talk about that. You lead on the accommodation cost survey in partnership with National Union of Students (NUS) – what are your takeaways from the most recent survey?

Victoria: We did the data collection in summer 2021, last year. That was really before the cost of living; utility costs weren’t really on the agenda at that time. For me the takeaways were that, if you get the average maintenance loan, then you can only just afford the average rent. You’ve got very little money left to live on. If you receive the maximum maintenance loan of about £9,000 once you’ve paid your rent, you’ve used 75% of that.

Even students who get the most financial support to study from the government still have very little left to live on for the rest of their time. That was the finding that really stood out to me, it’s that the average student can only just afford to pay their rent, and then all of their other living costs, they need to find that money from somewhere else. If they’re lucky, it’s the bank of mum and dad; if that’s not possible, then it’s work.

I don’t think students have ever been as pushed financially as this, we look back 10 years ago, if you got the maximum student loan after you’d paid your rent, you had about 50% of that left to live on. Now, you’ve got 25% of it left to live on. We did all this field work before utility costs started to rise. We work in a sector where all-inclusive rents are the norm – for a lot of providers that package, the all-inclusivity, is really important. I understand that, but have we created an unsustainable business model?

I think it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of providers to honour those promises, to continue to do that and offer accommodation that’s affordable. The viability of all-inclusive package is definitely going to be stretched and pushed over the next few years. I think we’re going to have to as a sector, look very carefully at that and come up with a settlement that’s fair to students, and fair to providers, because it’s not possible to have an unlimited energy risk within your business plan. It’s not feasible. We’re going to have to look at that.

I think that links in with a lots of concerns about sustainability, is all inclusive energy a sustainable position anyway, when the consumer has no link to the cost of it, it’s very hard to incentivise people to use energy responsibly when they don’t have to pay for it.

This might be the tipping point that makes the sector really look at that and say, “Okay, can we really afford all-inclusive energy? Is it the right thing to do?”

Jenny: I wanted to ask you about the practicalities of unbundling. I’ve heard a lot of talk about this as well recently, but actually the practicalities of unbundling when you’ve got a very large building with flats and rooms in there’s an investment required in order to be able to do that effectively. It’s practically a very tricky to do, isn’t it?

Victoria: Yes. I think if you think about the business model that a lot of the sector is developed on, which was relatively stable, low energy costs, meant that you could just bundle it all into the rent. A lot of these buildings have been constructed without meters on individual flats. It’s very difficult to charge for the actual energy used because you don’t know what it is.

I think in order for these properties to be financially viable from a business sense, we’re going to have to look at retrofitting meters, looking at energy efficiency measures, looking at the heating that we use and investing to ensure the long-term viability of these buildings, really from a business sense. If you’ve got an unrestricted liability in terms of your energy cost, and you’ve got no way of individually monitoring or charging it back to students, then that’s not really a sustainable business model. I don’t think going forward.

At Unipol we are a landlord ourselves. We have about 3,000 tenants. The majority of those tenants are on all-inclusive deals. We’re starting to think really hard about that at the moment. What is that going to look like in the future? Can we continue to have uncapped use or will we have to bring in fair usage or cap to a certain limit? Previously Unipol used to use energy supplements. We would charge tenants £7 or £8 a week on top of their rent.

At the end of the year, we would say, you’ve underspent or you’ve overspent on your supplement. We would ask them to pay the excess or refund if they’d underspent. That’s quite a good system. It’s a lot to think about isn’t there. I think we’re all going to have to come up with a system that’s manageable financially. I think if you look over the next 10 or 20 years, energy costs, for whatever reason, whether it’s global instability, or tariffs or sustainability, all of those costs are only going to go up. Dealing with all-inclusive bills is definitely going to be a big challenge for the sector.

Jenny: I agree with that, just taking a bit of a zoom out in a long view, seeing how the accommodation cost survey has progressed over the last 10 years. I know it’s been going a lot longer than that. Is it over 50 years, it’s been going?

Victoria: We believe it started in the late 70’s.

Jenny: Amazing.

Victoria: I think we’ve got copies going back into the 90’s, and I’m sure there’ll be old versions sat somewhere in somebody’s loft. If anybody listening to this has an old archive of documents and they have one, please let us have a copy. We’d love to see some old ones.

Jenny: Even from a sociological perspective, that will be so interesting. I was going to say, in the time that I’ve seen it, there’s been a change of view, at first it felt like, “Oh, there’s definitely a problem here driven by the private sector.” Over time, it became apparent that actually costs were rising in universities as well, and university accommodation. A lot of that was to do with the investment that they needed to put in. We’ve talked about the increased expectations on accommodation, quite labour intensive I think, compared to how it was maybe in the 90’s.

I’m just wondering if you think that the solutions to the cost lie within the sector, or outside of the sector, or maybe a combination of the two. It’s a very broad question, but it’s certainly something that I feel people are wrestling with, can we just cut our rents and then everything’s fine. I’m not sure that’s actually feasible. How do we address this?

Victoria: It’s not easy. Is it? We’d love to all be able to build buildings that were cheaper, but all of the pressures are in the opposite direction. What do you do about that? I think we had a few suggestions in the survey.

Universities can work with the private sector and, long-term deals are a way to bring down costs. Over time the accommodation cost survey has evolved. I think if you went back to the previous survey and the one before that we were saying, “We need to develop cheaper accommodation.” I think our take on it really in this last survey has changed slightly, which is to a position where we’re saying, students need more financial support. You can make changes to the building specification and you can make things more dense and there’s definitely more work that can be done there. We’re not writing that off.

I think Unite are good at this and, and other providers are trying to work in this area of looking at the mid-priced en-suite but not necessarily being very luxurious at mid-priced en-suite rooms. We’ve been saying for such a long time that we need the Premier Inn of student housing to develop and whether that is looking at bigger flats, bigger buildings, smaller rooms so I think there’s just a range of things that need to be done. There’s no one silver bullet, and we don’t underestimate the difficulty that developers are faced with, because it’s not cheap to build student accommodation.

There are risks involved and there were also increasing requirements from regulators, from accreditation bodies, like Unipol, the expectation of the support that’s provided in the building so if we can try and look at what is the level of need, think about affordability a bit more broadly, having a more nuanced understanding of how much money students have got in their pocket because at the moment, I think that maintenance loans are not keeping track with the cost of living. Student rents are just out of line with how much money students have actually got to live on.

There’s no one big solution unfortunately, but actually, if universities and the private sector look within their own portfolios and look at their own strategies and say, “OK, what can we do as an organisation to try and offer something that doesn’t look stingy or not very nice, but is a lower priced offering in particular cities where we know it’s a challenge? Is there something that we can do on amenity level or design or density of buildings to try and lower rents? Can we look at bursaries?”

I think that’s one of the recommendations that we made in the survey this year is we think that universities and also private providers should look at offering bursaries to students who’ve got low income levels and have evidence that they need extra support. We’re going to be doing some work on that over the next couple of years to see what that might look like and just try and raise that concept as an idea. Even within the private sector, can we look at providing some financial support? We did it during the pandemic to an extent – can we replicate that again?

Jenny: Gosh, we’ve had such a great conversation. Just to finish off: what’s the one thing or the one change you’d like to see in student accommodation over the next few years?

Victoria: That’s a big question to end on. I think it’s something that I’ve talked about already really. It’s just that understanding that it’s part of students’ educational experience living in PBSA – it’s not just housing, and we’d like more recognition of that from a government perspective as well.

We’re constantly making the case for saying that no student accommodation needs to be treated differently in terms of regulation, but just recognising the special status of student housing, it isn’t just somewhere that people live and if universities and university sector bodies could actually give it a bit more priority as well and recognise that the UK higher education model is predicated on there being enough decent student accommodation.

If students travel around, they get on the train and they go and study in Leeds or Merseyside or Exeter from wherever they live and they’re not restricted to just going somewhere locally. It’s a unique part of the UK higher education experience. It needs to be cherished and recognised a bit more because it’s very easy for other factors to make it too difficult for students to go away and have that experience, without students having an ability to access reasonable, affordable accommodation, where they want to study – I think it does risk undermining the higher education model in this country to some extent.