If hybrid learning is here to stay, student housing is about more than a bed

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is the vice president for higher education at NUS.


Pango Simwaka is Union Affairs Officer at Leeds Beckett Students’ Union

Student housing has been in crisis for years now – with poor living conditions, high and rising rents and a lack of availability of housing plaguing the sector.

The pandemic has completely altered how students interact with their accommodation at university, with Covid-19 exposing the injustice of inflexible rental contracts and the raw deal students have been dealt.

The joint Accommodation Costs Survey by NUS and Unipol is run every three years, and provides a comprehensive view of trends and costs in student accommodation. Running for almost half a century. It is the only freely available publication of its kind.

This year’s iteration of the survey is now live for providers to complete.

The survey tracks accommodation costs including rent and contract length all the way through to booking fees, cancellation fees and anything in between.

It also looks at emerging trends in the sector such as how guarantors are used, how students with access requirements are treated and what those working in the sector see as the emerging challenges, and presents to us the chance to finally put renters at the heart of student accommodation policy.

Faster than inflation

In 2018/19 we found that the overall average weekly rent was £147, a steady increase since previous surveys. NUS and students’ unions have used the survey in the past to call for pricing options accessible for more students and many institutions have sought to implement affordability strategies as a consequence of the survey’s findings.

With trends indicating that student rents have continued to rise since 2018, we must break this cycle and do better. It’s vitally important that institutions and private providers share with us their experiences.

Since the last instalment of the survey in 2018 we have experienced a global pandemic. This year’s student advisory group – put together by NUS and Unipol – worked hard shaping Covid-19 specific questions to capture the impact of the pandemic, and to ensure that in normal times as well as crisis we are able to reflect on the key lessons that need to be learned.

As well as fundamentally reshaping student experiences, the past 18 months have drawn into sharper focus the educational inequalities that afflict society and has left millions of students unable to live in the location they had paid for and expected to study from.

Not just a bed

With less than two weeks left until this year’s survey closes, it’s great news that we look set to exceed the 2018 survey’s total sector return rate of 64%. After the years of injustice that have landed students in this housing crisis, this is a rare chance to learn some key lessons and to identify areas where partnering with students and their representatives will prove beneficial in giving students an equitable settlement.

As well as encouraging universities to take part, we’re calling on all PBSA providers to take part in the survey. Doing so supports the continuous maturing of the sector, and the data that comes back will be of best use to everyone if we have a comprehensive picture.

As we hopefully emerge from the cycle of lockdowns and begin to rethink the function of student accommodation, it’s important we acknowledge the changing role it has played in students’ lives. With lockdowns and long periods of remote or hybrid learning, countless students having spent much longer periods in their accommodation than previously and this looks to be a long-lasting development.

As a result this year’s survey will be crucial in enabling us to pick up emerging trends in how the sector is responding to these changing needs. Having been treated as a secondary concern for 18 months, this survey can make sure that students are at the heart of student housing policy.

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