Who will take responsibility for fixing student accommodation?

There’s a minor student housing crisis sweeping bits of the UK right now.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Caused partly by stock exiting the student market during the pandemic, the ongoing aftershocks from the examnishambles, and late searches for housing by international students (and home students who’ve been told they can’t study remotely), in some parts of the country there’s a desperate shortage – with students being shipped on coaches to other towns and cities.

Meanwhile in other cities there’s now a significant excess, with PBSA investors who are finding that students prefer cheaper HMOs demanding that their blocks be able to be used for other types of housing or even as hotels.

You might take the view that the problems being faced are no different to those that have ever been faced at this time of year – but that hardly makes them acceptable, and takes of that type can miss the longer term trends around the transformation of university towns and cities – that are not always for the better.

There’s also a whole bunch of stories around about accommodation builds being delivered late and students having to live in hotels.

It’s a whole bunch of issues that, to his credit, former universities minister Chris Skidmore tried to bash some heads together over back in 2019. His replacement doesn’t seem to have noticed, and a Universities UK initiative at roughly the same time also seems to have disappeared.

In our piece on the site on student accommodation last year, me and Wonkhe’s David Kernohan argued that if universities were to have invested, with Treasury backing, in their own low cost accommodation, we would be in a far better place than we are now – barely seeking to correct the ills of a “free market” decade of educational expansion without any controls.

So it was interesting to see a version of that solution proposed to be extended in the Republic of Ireland’s Housing for All – a New Housing Plan for Ireland. Universities in Ireland have developed significant numbers of student accommodation units in recent years through borrowing from the European Investment Bank via the country’s Housing Finance Agency, but borrowing by Technological Universities and Institutes of Technology has been subject to significant restrictions which now look to be eased to help solve a growing crisis.

This week independent.ie reported something of a perfect storm – homes that were previously occupied by students had been sold during the pandemic and the decision by some students in 2020 to defer college until this year now means that thousands of students are sleeping on couches, paying market rates for hotel rooms or deferring their entry to university due to a severe shortage of student accommodation.

SUs have reported a massive surge in the number on waiting lists for accommodation or who need help with finding private property to rent, and councils granting permission for student accommodation to be used for short-term letting has also been identified as a serious concern, which government officials have been discussing.

Would loan finance help with the bedspaces issue? Not necessarily. Daire Keogh, the DCU president, yesterday criticised a proposal in the government’s new “housing for all” plan that supports third-level institutions borrowing money to build student accommodation. DCU said the suggestion that extending lending facilities would solve the supply issue was based on a “false assumption”:

Even with the availability of cost-effective loans from the European Investment Bank and the Housing Finance Agency, escalating construction costs mean that it is now simply uneconomic for universities to undertake the construction of student accommodation”

It’s obviously a set of issues that needs focussed attention from ministers both in Ireland and the UK – but universities and regulators should probably should play their part too.

What if a university was only able to offer a place to a student studying away from home if it could guarantee somewhere to live within X miles’ radius? And what if it could only offer a place to a low income student studying away from home if it could guarantee somewhere to live that was within a certain price bracket? That would focus minds, and likely put a handy brake on “over-recruitment” to a particular town or city.

One response to “Who will take responsibility for fixing student accommodation?

  1. Isn’t the answer: Michael Gove? Surely the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities should be stepping up here? As student accommodation has been left as a category to itself – sui gereris – there’s limited structure in the national planning framework to help planning authorities frame their local plans. The situation differs widely between areas; some may have very limited amounts of student accommodation, but in some a large proportion of the population are students and will be living in a mix of purpose-built and adapted housing.
    If developers keep building stuff that’s predicated on the old model of a term-time student who has access to a home and is using the ‘study bedroom’ for a limited proportion of the day, they won’t meet the standards set out for single dwellings. Guidance for local plans suggests at least 35m2 is necessary for a single dwelling. Developers put up rooms in cluster flats at about 15m2 and studios at 20m2. This means they are unsuitable if the market drops away and you want to put other people in. There’s no guidance on how much communal space is appropriate – is a 20m2 gym enough space for 100 students, 200 students or 500 students?
    Then there’s the issue of whether a planning authority can really enforce planning, Consideration of each application is taken on its merits, but what if 10 developers all bid to build new 500 place PBSAs? Would even the biggest student city need 5000 new bed spaces coming online?
    DfE should have a view on the student support side, but this is a housing matter and the new ministers should be grappling with it.

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