Universities need to enter conversations with the private sector about building affordable student accommodation much earlier in the development process, a conference has heard.
Jo Winchester, head of student accommodation valuation at real estate consultants CBRE, said that currently the private sector is providing student accommodation almost entirely “without meaningful university engagement” and that often universities “won’t provide a single word in support until a spade is in the ground”.
“Budget accommodation is not being built in bulk and university influence is very much needed in earlier stages of development in order to get a broader remit,” Ms Winchester told delegates.
“Without their voice at the design stage, developers will tend towards more expensive room types.
“Clearly, affordability is a strong concern for policymakers and universities, but the expectation that the private sector can deliver accommodation at below market rents is unrealistic because this feeds into viability and what can be offered for sites which would make this simply uncompetitive with other uses or indeed with other student accommodation bidders.”
Ms Winchester added that the “university’s voice” would be to the “benefit of students”.
“Firstly, we would not be here without our universities, whose strong reputation in research and teaching quality in the UK attracts students and creates demand which is very attractive to the private sector,” she said. “Universities can provide valuable information as to what students want and need. They also have a key role into providing information as to the student population.”
Responding to a question from the audience at the Westminster Higher Education Forum event, she said the “frustration from the private sector is they would very much welcome university support…in whatever form it takes”.
Several other speakers at the conference on the future of the student housing market also said that universities were far too reticent in conversing with private providers. Heriberto Cuanalo, chief executive of accommodation consultancy Collegiate AC, said it could be to the financial benefit of universities to enter such conversations.
“By having a university involved, the finance costs to a developer will probably come down, and even something as loose as a marketing agreement will influence that tremendously. So we need to try and have more dialogue,” he said.