Scotland’s review of student accommodation emerges. Sort of

Well this is surreal.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

We’ve been waiting for months for the Scottish Government to publish its response to its review of purpose-built student accommodation, the research phase of which was published way back in December 2022.

At various points MSPs have asked about progress and have been given dates when the review’s steering group would publish its recommendations, and when a response to the review would emerge.

Late last week in response to a question from Scottish Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy (MSP for Glasgow), Scotland’s minister for higher and further education Graeme Day revealed the ten recommendations of that group – “three of which are specifically for the Scottish Government” and have been “fully accepted” by ministers (although I make it seven where the Scottish Government would be in the driving seat).

The first is that the Scottish Government works with partners to develop a “model” set of terms and conditions to apply across all PBSA, both institutionally and privately operated. Given the range of different providers that involves it will end up being quite a feat to pull that off – and while a document like that might end up being the “norm”, it’s not at all clear whether it might end up being mandatory.

That said, the second recommendation is that the Scottish Government consults widely on the scope to legislate on PBSA regulation, specifically in respect of at least a couple things that will be in those model Ts and Cs – notice periods and cooling off periods for PBSA tenants. The commitment is to identify the “circumstances that would apply” in such cases and, in a sop to developers, “any impact on investment and rent levels”.

The third is that the Scottish Government works with partners to scope the development of a model complaints procedure to be adopted across all types of PBSA. That would be significantly weaker than the proposal in England – where as per the Renter’s (Reform) Bill, PBSA providers will have to take part in one of the Unipol-run “national codes”, which include provision for external complaints review and redress. That said, I’m sure Unipol could be persuaded to expand North.

The remaining recommendations cover the things we pretty much expected. Universities will be asked to work with partners to develop and distribute information packs for student tenants in both institutional and private PBSA properties, outlining the existing routes for progressing complaints and redress, including through the SPSO in the case of university accommodation.

The Scottish Government will also convene a “national round table discussion” with HEIs, private PBSA providers, investors/developers, students, and local authorities, to explore improvements in relation to ensuring the housing needs of students are met, and “strategic partnerships” are to be established at local level, “involving all those involved in provision / use of student accommodation” to consider / address supply issues at local level in the short, medium, and long-term.

That all sounds spectacularly woolly – Scotland is of a size that ought to at least support a national strategy over student housing, the likes of which have been popping up across Europe in response to repeated crises caused by rapid expansion. More on that below.

Something else the Scottish Government is being tasked with is working with partners to identify and address barriers to expanding the supply of affordable accommodation for students through, for example, the repurposing of existing buildings and the utilisation of alternative housing models like housing co-operatives.

Along with universities, it will also “actively engage” with property investors/developers in the private sector to encourage the development of a “more diverse range” of student accommodation properties, which could meet the needs of families and those on lower incomes.

Universities and private PBSA will be asked to work more closely together to ensure students get the information they need, including consideration of data sharing agreements, and universities will be asked to provide to all tenants residing in university or privately-run PBSA information on student support available through institutions, and how to access it.

And finally, the Scottish Government will engage with the Home Office on the provision of student dependents’ data for international students taking up places at Scottish universities – a recommendation that would have been better delivered before the Home Office banned the vast majority of international students from bringing dependants.

Taken together and we’re in the realm of “well obviously” here – lots of motherhood and apple pie, without timeframes, measures, cash or much in the way of levers to make it happen. It’s notable that there’s little in there that’s not already in UUK guidance on the issues – and it’s not as if that’s fixed the problem.

Crucially, the SNP promised a comprehensive review of the Purpose-Built Student Accommodation sector to then bring forward a “student accommodation strategy for Scotland”. On this evidence it feels like only the formative first half of this work is set to have been actually delivered by the end of the Parliament.

Maybe there’s more to this and it will add up to what was promised, but dribbling out a belated and unclear set of recommendations without anything to accompany it shouldn’t give students in Scotland much confidence.

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