In a year of tumultuous uncertainty, where the headwinds of Covid-19 bore a number of new realities and decimated others, some industries have risen like the Phoenix.
Purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) is one such sector which has seen outsized recognition from global investors throughout the pandemic. With investment volumes fairing better than other established real estate asset classes and the pandemic expected to be a catalyst for further growth, new entrants alongside existing market players’ appetite to increase investment shows no signs of slowing.
Despite a recent dip in PBSA planning applications, a number of underlying fundamentals have not only taken the PBSA sector from strength to strength and will continue to do so, but in turn they have reflected the stability of the sector against all odds.
When it comes to PBSA, international student mobility has proved to be the mother of opportunity. Even in spite of the pandemic, UCAS data showed that applications in October 2020 from non-EU international students increased by 20% compared with last year.
The UK now also offers one of the longest post-study work visa systems in the world, where international students can remain in the country for two years after graduating. With international students often possessing greater accommodation budgets than domestic students, this important demand base has presented itself as a key interest factor for investors when identifying areas where demand outstrips supply.
On top of this, while the student experience has taken a hard hit with students having to quickly adapt to being taught and socialising almost entirely online, demand has continued to soar. A recent Unite Students and Opinium survey showed that in the face of this year’s challenges, students on the whole preferred living in student accommodation as opposed to living at home and 93% would continue to do so (if allowed) from January.
Coupled with this, 81% of students surveyed valued going to university despite the circumstances that impacted their experience.
Both of these are key indicators of a wider demographic trend of positive sentiment towards continuing university education against the backdrop of the pandemic - one that has drawn greater attention from investors.
Commitment to quality
The role of PBSA operators in offering a positive response to the pandemic cannot be understated. With Covid-19 shifting the priorities of students, combined with a high quality of service and flexibility, PBSA models are fast emerging to offer clear advantages over houses in multiple occupation (HMO) style accommodation.
This is particularly pertinent when looking at the volume of time most students have spent in their accommodation this last year as a result of nationwide restrictions where satisfaction with accommodation became even more pressing.
By quickly adjusting to meet student needs throughout an intensely difficult period, they have proved themselves heavyweights in the differences between other housing choices available for students.
A continuation of this trend is very likely with more evidence showing a growing proportion of students will look to PBSA to continue to meet their housing requirements as a result of greater choice and increased expectations.
While we find ourselves in a third lockdown, the outlook for 2021 is still set to be positive. There is a healthy pipeline of new student schemes on the supply-side, all of which have a renewed focus to make mental health services and a good quality of communal services essential features of all PBSA. This has been intensified off the back of students emphasising the importance of wellness and support offered by PBSA providers.
The pandemic has also called on PBSA operators to refocus their product and service proposition to appeal to domestic students. The domestic student market has proven to be remarkably resilient and undeterred by Covid-19 when pursuing their education, which has and will continue to lead to high occupancy levels if proactively targeted.
In light of this, PBSA operators will take a far more active role in addressing affordability to place themselves at the centre of this demand.
There is set to be 400,000 more domestic students in higher education by 2030 and PBSA operators acknowledge this is a key direction the sector must gravitate towards to ensure they don’t miss out on the opportunity. A movement to further improve user experience and modernise current infrastructure will be paramount to this effort.
An era for enhanced PBSA
As it stands, the traditional processes and booking infrastructure used by PBSA operators is time-consuming and until recently has lacked innovation. Operators often don’t have the tools to convert students into bookings at scale and don’t have access to informative data showing student preferences on a granular level.
In having to rely on slow, disorganised and inefficient tracking of occupancies and contract management, operators have yet to meet their full potential. Coupled with this, student accessibility, particularly for overseas students, has largely been stifled as a result of expensive and time-consuming processes.
With PBSA now a global scale market in full force, attracting significant institutional capital, the need to integrate with end-to-end platforms to optimise overall offerings will be vital.
In 2021, the PBSA operators who set themselves apart will be those who leave faulty legacy processes in the past and adopt fast, reliable and secure streamlined solutions to provide instant and flexible bookings for students.
The key to pushing the market into a bulletproof position will be to rewrite the rulebook in order to create and connect a global ecosystem of platforms, operators and students.
*Lydia Jones is the chief executive and founder of student accommodation platform Housemates