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Ten Takeaways from The Student Accommodation Conference 2018

It was great to see lots of familiar faces at Property Week’s 2018 Student Accommodation Conference. There was a packed agenda with four different “streams” to choose from – and smart tech talks in the coffee breaks. So what did I learn? Here are my top ten nuggets of information:

  1. The success of the Student Accommodation industry depends on the success of our universities and colleges – Austerity measures; increased competition from abroad and problems attracting and retaining the best talent are all issues which threaten the excellent reputation that British institutions have worked so hard to establish.
  2. UK student debt is at £100 billion and rising – Tuition fees have increased by 721% since 1994, significantly higher than inflation. The Government’s Augar Review is, amongst other things, looking at how to reduce the cost of higher education. Some predict that one of the outcomes will be increased fees for science subjects because science graduates are more likely to repay the debt. Whilst a reduction in fees for non-science subjects would be welcomed, there are fears that these measures may result in fewer science graduates, contaminating the UK skills supply, and may create social mobility issues as students choose cheaper courses.
  3. The Brexit threat is a real one – Interestingly, it was not the threat to undergraduate numbers that the speakers were most concerned about this year, but the postgraduate, particularly PhD, numbers. This has a knock on effect in terms of quality of provision, research and reputation if universities start to lose their PhD students. Competing institutions in countries like Australia and Canada are waiting in the wings, or rather, are on active marketing campaigns…
  4. Keep an eye on the horizon – A longer term vision is needed to weather the storm. The industry needs to keep an eye on institutions in the emerging markets such as China and India, and on the changing higher education culture: shorter degree courses; multi-careers; and the rise in online courses, to name a few.
  5. “Build the best Ford Mondeo style product” – Probably my favourite quote from the conference by Stewart Moore of CRM Students. His point was that trendy pilates studios only get you so far – there is a natural rent saturation level. Providing a good quality product at a good price increases your chances of success, especially in the current climate.
  6. Location, location, location – Being as close to the institution as possible is key. HMO operators also agreed with this. The only exception conceded was London where locating out of centre (but as close to a fast tube line as possible), can reduce rents significantly. This is particularly true in the “affordability” crisis, which was another conference buzz-word this year.
  7. The draft London Plan is worrying developers – The requirement for at least 35% affordable housing provision on top of the other expected developer contributions has set hares running. What’s more the need for a nominations agreement covering the majority of beds before first occupation and throughout the life of the development is a cause for concern for some operators. The Leaders of Redbridge Council and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham were confident that the draft Plan’s requirements are workable but said that aspirational boroughs will need to reach out to developers and work together to make it happen.
  8. The tech doesn’t have to be swanky – Yes wifi is as important as a bed, but reliability, not speed of service, is crucial. The student panel all agreed that “fancy apps” that are not user-friendly were pointless and frustrating. They wanted technology to enhance and enable human interaction, not replace it. This was a general theme across the conference which also considered mental health issues and solutions.
  9. The days of campus education are not numbered (yet) – The rise in online courses and the cost-saving of staying at home to study have not brought down campus education yet. Going away to study is still very much part of UK culture. Roughly 25% of students are “commuter students” and apparently this proportion has not changed dramatically in the last ten years. That said, some of the panellists were cautious and said that the outcome of the Augar Review may threaten this further.
  10. Only one of the five fastest growing universities in the UK is from the Russell Group – I was both surprised and concerned by this. One of the main reasons that the non-Russell Group universities are doing better is their focus on student employability. Some newer universities are offering industry-led initiatives which connect students with employers and ensure better preparation for working life. Student experience rankings are also significant. As students are now paying directly for their education, they expect value for money and want to ensure their voices are heard. Who can blame them?