Universities need firmer oversight role for student housing

Improving links between students, landlords and institutions can avoid the pitfalls of the private rental market, says Ahmed Mussa

June 7, 2019
Source: Getty

With around half of the student population in the UK living in privately rented accommodation, many of those going to university will be no strangers to the minefield that is the student rental market.

I definitely wasn’t back in 1985. After living in a house with a broken central heating system while working toward my MSc, I ended up catching pneumonia and spent two weeks in the hospital, much to the detriment of my studies. Later, while doing my PhD, I returned from a holiday to find I couldn’t access my home because of repair work being carried out to the flooring. Having not been notified, I had no option but to stay with a friend for three weeks which put me under great strain academically and financially.

I thought I had just been unlucky, but in 2013 I stumbled upon a guide for university staff on how to help international students with accommodation. The issues it raised reminded me of the stress and suffering I experienced and I realised this was in fact a widespread problem that was even more pertinent today. Hence why I chose to find a way to solve these problems.

The student lettings industry is a relatively new one, originating in the 1980s when the growth of the British university system meant institutions started to rely on the private sector to provide accommodation. The student rental market consists of three parties: the university, the accommodation provider and the student, whereas the rental market typically only has two: the provider and the tenant. Owing to the three-party structure, the student rental market has its own unique supply-and-demand mechanism.

In the rental market, it is typically the role of the provider to attract potential tenants. This isn’t the case with student tenancies as the university in effect adopts this role by creating a demand for properties through student recruitment. The student rental market is a lucrative business for providers. They do not have to spend as much on marketing and the average rent for student properties can be higher if rooms are let individually. Consequently the potential for profit has attracted many investors to the student rental market, resulting in an oversupply of student properties in some areas.

In spite of this, students are often pressured into signing rental contracts because of the perception of scarcity caused by the difficult process of finding sufficient accommodation. Firstly, student rentals are not advertised in a one-stop location. Some are posted online or on campus noticeboards, while others are only found in shop windows or through “To Let” signs. This fuels the perception of scarcity as it is difficult for students to ascertain the full picture of the rental market they are entering. As a result, in many cases, students accept substandard and sometimes dangerous properties.

Meanwhile, whether or not providers satisfy their existing tenants has no bearing on their future success as a business because they are guaranteed a new cohort of students every year regardless. That is not to say that every provider is seeking to shortchange their student tenants, but those who do offer a good service do so because of their own values and professionalism, not out of a necessity to retain customers.

In order to link student tenants’ satisfaction to the business success of the providers, the university must be posited as a second “customer” that the provider also needs to satisfy – as without the university’s provision of students, the provider may struggle to find tenants. This could be realised by allowing universities to oversee services provided to student tenants, without added legal or administrative burdens, to ensure a minimum quality of service is provided.

Over the past five years, I have been looking at a technical solution to achieve this through the development of a web-based artificial intelligence system that links students, landlords and universities called Student Accommodation Quality Service Assurance. An important aim is to create harmony between the three parties in the student-tenancy industry. Since January this year, we have also been working with Birmingham City Business School, aiming to further develop the solution and implement it on a larger scale.

But notwithstanding any technical solutions, it seems amiss that the new regulatory framework for higher education in England does not appear to include any specific objectives that relate to housing. With accommodation playing such a huge role in the life of any individual, student or otherwise, it is strange that housing is absent from this framework, given its potential to cause huge detriment to the physical and mental health of students.

I believe that once the Office for Students includes students’ living experiences in privately rented accommodation within its regulations, the supply-and-demand mechanism of the rental market will be rebalanced on a large scale, and student well-being and satisfaction will substantially increase with it.

Ahmed Mussa is managing director of start-up company UKSIAS.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Universities need oversight role for student housing

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