The impact of Covid 19 on the student accommodation sector was swift, with Students leaving their accommodation to return home in significant numbers.
Many students, without part-time work because of the pandemic, struggled to make rent payments creating pressure for Landlords. A number of Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) providers responded by enabling students to cancel their contracts, with one provider – Unite Students – cancelling over £100 million of rent payments.
Even during the peak of the lockdown restrictions, it was noticeable that demand for student accommodation remained. Enquiries for student accommodation were up 38%.
This demand was driven by students who were midway through their degree and through new applicants, attracted by the quality of UK universities. A university education is highly regarded and despite the challenge of online learning, a record 40% of the UK’s 18 year olds applied to go to University this year. Therefore the number of students studying for a degree remains robust.
Shifting patterns of demand
The potential impact of reduced numbers of international students has been widely covered by media. In reality, the number of international students who have a place this year at University is up by over 1,000 to 71,320.
Again the demand is there, however the main concern is whether these students will take up that place or choose to defer. This seems to have had an impact in London and in particular on purpose build student accommodation, which would typically rely on volumes of international students.
Outside of London there has been less of an impact. One major change Accommodation For Students (AFS) has seen is increased demand for shared housing and HMOs, which are up 42%.
Growing in interest in shared housing
This growth in interest in shared housing at a time when we would typically see the majority of demand for PBSA reflects three things;
· Increase in applications from domestic students to UK Universities
· The impact of Covid 19 on accommodation choices
· Delays in existing students finding accommodation as a result of lockdown
As a result, AFS anticipates a busy early letting season (October – February) where groups of students traditionally seek to secure their shared housing for the next academic year.
This in particular will be driven by increasing numbers of domestic students looking to move on from University owned halls. However, the ‘season’ may start a little later than in previous years as some University stagger return dates and it may take longer for this year’s cohort of students to orientate themselves into student life, because of some of the social restrictions that are in place.
UK Universities are world class. Oxford University continues to top the list of the world’s best Universities. This quality will continue to attract students and the sharp rise in the number of 18 year olds in the UK, with a million more in the next ten years, point to continued growth in the sector and the need for student accommodation.
While the long term prognosis is positive, there are short term challenges to overcome. However there are some positive trends for landlords and agents to capitalise on – in particular the growing interest in shared housing.
To capitalise, a radical strategy would be to build some flexibility into tenancy agreements to adapt to the short term impact of Covid, as many in the PBSA sector have. However, the basics of good marketing, competitive pricing and the right location should be enough to ensure a positive outcome for most.
Simon Thompson is CEO of AccommodationForStudents.com