Why student accommodation matters more post COVID-19

How could COVID-19 affect student accommodation? While many universities around the world have been forced to rely mainly on online learning over recent months, the general consensus is that it cannot fully replace the on-campus experience.

A recent paper which I co-authored drew insights from consumer behaviour literature and highlights a rather underplayed attribute in the student experience discourse. Entitled No Room in the Inn? Decoding the student experience from the housing and accommodation business perspective, the study drew on Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, which suggests that psychological needs are preceded by lower order or physiological ones such as the need for shelter.

Consequently, in any consideration of the student experience there is a need to introduce, or at least acknowledge, that it would be incomplete without addressing the housing needs of students. This makes sense when one considers the summary of a recent University World News article, which highlighted the implications of quarantining incoming students for the global recruitment of British universities.

The implications affect all parties – higher education providers, employers, students and other stakeholders. There are multiple factors involved in students’ study choices and in the article we argued that quality student accommodation could compensate for lower ratings in other competing attributes such as reputation, graduate destinations and diversity, among others.

In a follow-on article entitled “Living Dangerously? ‘Accommodating’ the student experience in British universities”, I took that narrative further by attempting to explore linkages between the student experience and the whole notion of the ‘sticky campus’ that most universities seem to be grappling with.

Accommodation and the student experience

I started out with a few questions with limited answers – What is this hoo-ha about ‘student experience’ in higher education? How is it defined? Whose responsibility is it?

Following an exploration of the experiences of rival European university study destinations such as France, Germany and even the Netherlands, I argued that student accommodation, and the unresolved questions surrounding it, may be of strategic importance in the marketing of study destinations, especially for international students seeking places at British universities.

As reported in the Guardian in 2015, “once students went to university for education, now it’s an experience”. Considering the current higher education climate, where students’ needs are ever changing, and universities are always playing catch-up, this matter needs to be addressed, and at least six stakeholder groups need to pay some attention.

First, for potential (and sometimes even returning or continuing) students, accommodation may become an important attribute for their study choice. Professor Peter Scott has pointed out in a 2016 study that “all students are different, and are becoming increasingly more so. The categorisation of students into part-time, full-time, undergraduate and postgraduate – or any mix of these, does highlight the differing needs, perceptions and-or attitudes of each.”

While the quality of teaching (and learning from their peers) might mean everything for part-time postgraduates attending classes on wet winter evenings, what matters most for full-time young undergraduates is the quality of ‘student life’, in which formal academic work may rank alarmingly low.

Second, many universities pride themselves on top student experience rankings without fully understanding and-or explaining what the term actually means. Universities need to be more proactive in either providing affordable housing for students or partnering with property owners and assisting students with signing contracts for accommodation.

With this in place, students would have one less worry and their productivity and engagement levels would increase, thus enabling better academic performance and ultimately helping them become more prepared for the real world of work following graduation.

Third, and from a managerial angle, consumer behaviour literature suggests that one of several ways of compensating for low rankings may derive from the important weights students assign to these attributes and how universities capitalise on their relative advantages. Perhaps universities that have invested in student housing may be better positioned to communicate this more forcefully.

This is especially important for those universities whose student body is predominantly made up of international students and it compensates in part for distance from home. Indeed, most student prospectuses as well as job advertisements, especially on www.jobs.ac.uk, tend to include the campus environment in their ads before prospective applicants even get to the main course or jobs information.

Fourth, accommodation is a rather overlooked element of the total student experience and different student populations are looking for different things from it. It is a no brainer that the availability of on-campus living or recommended student accommodation to some degree serves to balance the ‘proximity to home’ disadvantage for international students in particular, as well as attributes such as reputation which features in the National Student Survey.

Fifth, student accommodation providers, partnering with universities, need to tackle this missing piece in the student experience puzzle. Indeed, policy-makers (governments and their respective agencies) should work more closely with the other stakeholders to make their cities more attractive to students.

Sixth, and finally, policy-makers and-or organisations such as the higher education funding councils for England (HEFCE), Wales (HEFCW), Scotland (SFC) and central government, among others – are key players behind the National Student Survey (NSS) questionnaire, but worryingly do not seem to have treated student housing problems with any degree of seriousness.

Indeed, of the 27 questions in the questionnaire, student housing is conspicuously absent, despite references to feeling part of a learning community in other questions. I, for one, can recall what living together in a student hostel meant for being able “to work with other students as part of my course”, as indicated in question 22 of the NSS.

Making the campus more attractive

Broadly speaking, the whole notion of ‘student experience’ includes life on campus. ‘The sticky campus’ is largely about the social life of students, something that is even more important for international students who are not the usual ‘commuting type’.

However, the NSS questionnaire does not even include an accommodation question, meaning the measurement of student satisfaction may be skewed. This is particularly important as British higher education is likely to be one of the most impacted in terms of international student recruitment and cost of living by COVID-19 and its economic impact.

The world has witnessed how COVID-19 has made an impact on the student accommodation sector, with many displaced students seeking refunds and many others left ‘out in the cold’.

This means that universities and their partners (property investors and landlords alike) will need to undertake due diligence and-or risk assessment in order to hone their student living offer and make it part of their USP (unique selling point) for the student experience in the future. They need to ask themselves whether students know about the cost of living in their country and how the hassle of finding suitable and affordable housing impacts on time for study and class attendance.

Among the things that international students do not know very much about are their contractual rights and arrangements for housing and, more importantly, how these might interfere with their studies.

Student accommodation therefore needs to be given more consideration and should be an area of priority attention in any discussions about the student experience in higher education. This is especially important in an increasingly competitive market for international students in the wake of COVID-19.

Shouldn’t universities really be about enabling students to build their own ‘experiences’ within the welcoming embrace of, and safe spaces provided by, their institutions?

Nnamdi O Madichie is research fellow at the Bloomsbury Institute London, United Kingdom. He is also visiting professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at the UNIZIK Business School, Awka, Nigeria, as well as research fellow at the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Professor Madichie is also visiting professor at the Coal City University, Enugu, Nigeria, and external examiner at the Liverpool Business School, UK. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy of England and Wales. His research straddles broad areas of marketing and entrepreneurship, cutting across geographic contexts, notably Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He has published extensively (anecdotes, books, book chapters, case studies and refereed journal articles) in the higher education sector, including authorship of an academic paper entitled “The entrepreneurial university: An exploration of ‘value-creation’ in a non-management department” in the Journal of Management Development.