As the costs of higher education increase, undergraduates are demanding more for their money - and that includes better accommodation. Harriet Swain reports on how the universities are responding.
When the University of East London decided to build some student residences in Docklands, it was seeking more than space. It also hoped to revamp its image. The drum-shaped, brightly coloured buildings stretched along the dockside have been featured extensively in promotional material for the university, and also in advertisements for Snickers, Bugatti and the BBC, and in a video for the pop group Placebo. For a university that had a high local profile but was scattered in buildings across London, it has provided an instantly recognisable "brand".
"The key thing about student residences is that the brief is banal," says Michael McGrath, a member of Edward Cullinan architects, which designed the campus. "It says, 'Provide all these little rooms with little windows.' You have to take that restrictive brief and create something."
It is a challenge that universities take increasingly seriously. Although resources available to spend on student residences have fallen over the years, demand is rising. Not only are universities such as UEL looking to innovative design to help boost their image, they are being forced to pay more attention to what their accommodation offers.
Undergraduates are leading the call for better facilities, no longer prepared to put up with Young Ones -style student digs when they spend much of their spare time working to pay for them. The latest survey of accommodation costs by the National Union of Students found that although average rents in halls already took up three-quarters of the student loan, most students would pay more for better facilities. The largest proportion suggested that between £1 and £5 extra a week would be reasonable, although a significant number would pay up to £10 more.
Simon Kemp, who carried out the survey, says: "It suggests that cheaper rent is a secondary concern to good-quality accommodation." Washing machines, freezers and en suite bathrooms are increasingly in demand, and privacy is highly valued. Most of those questioned would like to live in a home of their own.
Overseas students, who pay higher fees, are especially demanding. And because they contribute more to university incomes, institutions are keen to meet their requirements. The availability and standard of accommodation offered is likely to influence their choice of institution because of difficulties in arranging a place to live from abroad, the need to find somewhere for the whole year rather than just term-time, and often the need to house their families. Competition is similarly strong for postgraduate students.
Most universities are also interested in exploiting the conference market. This means providing accommodation acceptable to delegates - from visiting academics to business executives. Rooms must have en suite facilities - nearly one in five rooms provided by universities and colleges now fits the bill - and conform to hotel safety standards.
Letting rooms for conferences can be a lucrative business for universities. Major players such as Warwick University and Imperial College London reap profits of up to £5 million a year. This is important because student accommodation must be self-financing, and there are strict rules about diverting money meant for academic purposes into building and maintenance. This was not the case 30 years ago, when halls of residence were still covered by government funding. But since the 1970s, it has been up to individual institutions to borrow and save to pay for provision and upkeep of student blocks.
In the early 1990s, expansion of higher education and the end of the university/polytechnic divide led to a rapid building programme, particularly by the new universities. After 1996, it slowed significantly, and what work did take place was concentrated on academic buildings and technology. Now, prompted by the government's pledge to increase access to higher education and a growing backlog of maintenance, institutions are beginning to build again.
The problem, as always, is finance. Private finance initiatives were once heralded as the answer. The University of Greenwich's Avery Hill accommodation was the first such scheme four years ago. A PFI initiative has also provided accommodation at Falmouth College of Arts and, under a deal agreed in November, will do so at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. But others have fallen by the wayside. David Tupman, policy adviser for Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals), says: "What started off as a great hope is probably less regarded than it once was. There are still PFI projects, but institutions are a fairly sound financial risk and are able to get loans on the open market."
The NUS survey found that 23 per cent of respondents had built accommodation in the past two years and that 18 per cent plan to in the next year. Loans financed most construction, but links with housing associations, sale of existing property or cash reserves were also used.
One increasingly popular option is to hand over responsibility for providing and maintaining student residences to the private sector. Vic Slater, director of estates at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and chairman of the Association of University Directors of Estates, says: "There are several universities examining the option of not owning or operating accommodation at all - even to the extent of selling estates."
Unite, a Bristol-based company that claims to be the United Kingdom's leading specialist provider of student accommodation services, produced a briefing paper earlier this year that argued for universities to outsource more of their accommodation. This would allow them to "upgrade existing halls of residence, add new accommodation if required, potentially without capital outlay, and pass on the time-consuming management process to a specialist operator". It would also offer long-term opportunities to the private sector through economies of scale and the chance to attract customers through branding.
"In the same way that a Big Mac or Holiday Inn is consistent worldwide, there is an opportunity to create a level of brand recognition in students, parents and conference organisers, along with the expectation of a consistent standard of accommodation, whatever the location," the Unite paper says. The pay-offs may not be long in coming. In September, Unite announced interim pre-tax profits of £850,000 in the first half of 2000, more than in the whole of the previous year.
A spokesman for the University Partnerships Programme, run by Jarvis, which has already committed £80 million to residential projects and has £500 million worth of funding in the pipeline, says: "One of the misconceptions is that students are poor and dirty and make bad tenants. There are many students - particularly those from overseas - who are prepared to pay handsomely for good accommodation."
Martin Blakey, chief executive of Unipol Student Homes, a Leeds-based charity, predicts an increasingly important role for the private sector. He says the number of institutions able to provide accommodation for all first-year students is already small. Often, the ones who lose out are those who have received a place through clearing. Private accommodation providers are flexible enough to fill the gap.
Another key advantage of a privately run residence, he says, is that it can separate academic and non-academic considerations. While Unipol has networks to inform students where to find support if they need it, it concentrates exclusively on housing them. One consequence of this has been highlighted by recent university dilemmas over collecting student debts. "If they owe £100 for their residences, why should that result in their not getting their degree?" Blakey asks. Instead, he says, students' academic conduct should remain separate, and they should be taken to court like anyone else owing money.
Arrangements between the universities and property companies vary. Sometimes the company will buy and/or operate an existing residence. In other instances, it will develop a residence from scratch - finding the land, agreeing a design with the university, and building and managing the property. The university may be responsible for advertising some or all of the rooms, or the companies may do this themselves. Usually, any risk from failure to fill the accommodation or maintenance problems falls to the company.
There are potential dangers in handing over control of accommodation to the private sector. The University of London recently had to help students who were given notice to leave by their private landlord just days after signing a year-long lease. But there are advantages too. Many of the privately run residences provide a high level of security with CCTV cameras, swipe cards to operate entrances and 24-hour emergency help. Some offer internet and other telecommunications links. Others provide luxury "loft-style" accommodation for those who can afford it.
In many student residences, the old image of a soulless room, permanently occupied bathroom and week-old stack of shared washing-up is becoming a thing of the past.