The student sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but most universities are returning in some shape or form from the start of the next academic year - albeit with new protocols and restrictions in place, like the rest of society.
Here, Ben Fielding from InventoryBase, which provides property inventory software for landlords and other property professionals, discusses what students will want from their accommodation post-pandemic.
The long-unchallenged tradition of stability in the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector has been disrupted by the outbreak of the coronavirus. The pandemic has thrown the sector into disarray in many ways, from the prospect of low international student numbers to online teaching removing the need for students to live close to campus.
Though the UK is emerging from lockdown and travel has opened up to a number of countries, the global outlook is still troubling. The World Health Organisation believes that the virus is yet to pass its peak globally, which could suggest that the UK isn’t out of the woods just yet.
However, universities will still be accepting students into their courses, following the publication of predicted grades in August. This means that the class of 2020 will have their chance to go to university as normal, but what will these students expect in a post-pandemic world and what considerations will providers need to take into account to meet their needs?
What can accommodation providers expect?
While the majority of universities still intend to provide some in-person teaching and group social activities for their new crop of students, there are some, such as Manchester and Cambridge, who will be offering online-only lectures for at least the first term. These universities have indicated that some small-group teaching will be available, but that most studying will be done online.
For students, rent is a huge outgoing that can be challenging for many to afford. The prospect of their courses being available almost entirely online could influence many students to avoid renting from the beginning of the year to cut down on this cost.
However, moving to university is the first opportunity to leave home for most entrants and is a well-regarded societal tradition. The experience of university is both one of learning and socialising and emphasis will likely be on the latter in the coming academic year.
On the other hand, the virus has not been fully suppressed in the UK. This could mean that social distancing measures will continue for the rest of the year and further, localised outbreaks could occur. Therefore, the need for self-containment, particularly in distinctly communal living environments like PBSAs, will be more important this year.
Self-contained living arrangements, such as individual bathrooms and food storage, will be more desirable for students in the post-Covid property search.
What will students want?
With online learning set to be the norm at universities this year, students moving into accommodation could be more aware of their living space. Where before the top priorities might have included location, it could now be that larger lounges and bedrooms are the leading factors for student housing.
With local lockdowns also being an ever-present threat, following the lead of Leicester, students may also be more aware of just how much time they will be spending in their accommodation when choosing a place to stay.
Space will be a vital consideration for those planning to live in communal housing with people they don’t know should a local lockdown be enforced.
Though high-speed internet is a desirable goal for almost anybody looking for a place to live, for this year’s batch of students, it will be more significant than ever. With so many potentially sharing a WiFi connection and online lectures being the majority of teaching, students will be in dire need of a good internet connection to validate the cost of their tuition.
With 10% of accommodation providers intending to offer perks for rooms booked for the next academic year, including internet in the rent could be a simple and effective strategy to attract the attention of students. WiFi is typically a fixed-price utility so it comes with no unexpected bills and will be directly meeting the needs of this year’s students.
Aside from the practicalities of studying at university in the next academic year, the coronavirus pandemic has brought our public hygiene to the forefront. Communal living spaces might not be the most attractive prospect right now with so many of us having been in self-isolation for so long.
Accommodation providers will need to take this into consideration and monitor the hygiene of their properties more closely. This could come in the form of additional cleaning for communal areas, but this must be carried out while prioritising the safety of both staff and tenants.
When will the market recover?
Despite assurances that some teaching and social activities will be going ahead in the first term, if the majority of learning is available online in the first term next year, this could be enough to encourage students to avoid renting until 2021. If this affects enough students, filling rooms will become even more difficult for property providers.
However, if universities are still able to emphasise the social benefits of moving close to campus from the beginning of the year, the market should not face too much of a disruption. With Unite Students stating that more than 80% of rooms have already been booked for 2020/21, coronavirus has not been enough to deter many of those still planning their move to university.
Even if students flock to universities in the same numbers as previous years despite the challenges of the ‘new normal’, this is an ideal time for PBSA providers to reflect on the social, academic and welfare needs of their tenants and ensure that they are delivering a desirable service that enables students to fully benefit from their university experience after what has been one of the most unstable six months in a generation.