Student housing crisis: Calls for a more strategic approach

With rents rising sharply as demand outstrips supply in many popular study locations, universities and local authorities need to take a more strategic approach to tackle the accommodation crisis that pits less affluent students against lower-income residents in the hunt for somewhere to live – and Nottingham, a city in England’s East Midlands, may offer a way forward for others to follow.

Student housing shortages are forcing drastic action globally, with some Dutch universities telling international students not to come to the Netherlands unless they have secured accommodation before they arrive and Irish police warning students to be on guard after an increase in accommodation fraud.

It is far from being just a European problem, as highlighted when Chinese students were suddenly ordered to return to on-campus learning by a government edict in January and scrambled to secure housing in Australia for the start of the academic year in February.

Surge in student demand

British universities are experiencing a surge in student demand driven by a rise in 18-year-olds in the United Kingdom and a better-than-expected response to a government international education strategy.

The UK-wide international education strategy targeted countries like India and Nigeria with the offer of two-year post-study work opportunities and was designed to make up for a predicted fall in European Union students following the Brexit withdrawal agreement and to avoid over-reliance on China as a source of international students.

Jubilation broke out across the sector when the 600,000 target was beaten nearly a decade early and the number of overseas students studying in the UK climbed to 680,000 last year, with some UK universities trebling their international students compared to pre-COVID times.

While this might delight university finance directors and vice-chancellors as international students pay much higher tuition fees than UK students, there is little doubt that it is causing a strain on housing and welfare experts fear a rise in homelessness.

Experts point out that the mere presence of a university within a community tends to lead to higher rents and shortages of available affordable accommodation for both students and residents, as University World News reported last July.

Nottingham’s partnership approach

Set in the East Midlands, Nottingham has long proved popular with both UK and foreign students and the city is home to two leading universities: the University of Nottingham is part of the prestigious Russell Group of research-intensive universities and Nottingham Trent University won top spot in the 2022 Whatuni Student Choice Awards international category for how it welcomes and supports overseas students.

However, this popularity has led to a 25% growth in students requiring accommodation in the city, from around 40,000 to over 50,000 in just the last six years, and has resulted in fewer homes being available for local families, particularly in areas close to both campuses.

Population trends show that the number of 18-year-olds in England will increase by 24% between 2021 and 2030 and will go up by just over 28% in the greater Nottinghamshire region.

In an attempt to face up to their responsibilities, the two universities formed a partnership with Nottingham City Council to create a Student Living Strategy, which has been developed in consultation with the two students’ unions and representatives from resident groups, businesses and other organisations in the city.

It has three main strands: improving quality, safety, affordability and location of student accommodation, and encouraging a better balance of student housing choice across the city; encouraging neighbourliness, where students contribute to creating a clean, attractive and sustainable environment, and tackling the impact of waste and noise; and increasing community cohesion, ensuring students are valued members of their communities and improving graduate retention in the city.

The consultation process on the strategy has just ended and is currently being evaluated, Councillor Toby Neal, portfolio holder for housing and human resources at Nottingham City Council, told University World News.

Neal said: “Work has been underway to significantly grow the availability of purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) bed spaces, although growth over the past five years has not kept pace with the increase in student numbers.

“There are over 9,500 new PBSA bed spaces currently in the pipeline over the next three years, making Nottingham’s scale of growth in this sector second only to London.”

Differing housing needs

Among the factors for planners to consider when it comes to accommodating international students is that the two universities attract a different mix of foreign students, with the University of Nottingham having 3,330 students from China, compared with only 410 Chinese students at Nottingham Trent University, according to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Nottingham Trent University has 2,080 students from India compared with 525 at the University of Nottingham, and 610 Nigerian students were recorded studying at Nottingham Trent in 2021-22, compared to 180 Nigerians at the University of Nottingham.

Chinese students tend to be younger and looking for PBSA bed spaces, while Indian and Nigerian students are often looking for more affordable accommodation, or houses in multiple occupation or shared accommodation, and need family accommodation if they are bringing dependants.

So international students cannot be treated as one group when it comes to housing needs.

Stephen McAuliffe, deputy registrar at the University of Nottingham, told University World News: “The student population in Nottingham is not a homogenous body and will have different perspectives on the type of accommodation and environment they are looking for.

“In common with the rest of the population, students make individual choices about where they want to live. Our priority is to encourage a diverse range of good quality, affordable accommodation choices, which put in place the best possible conditions to encourage neighbourliness and build cohesive communities.”

Listening to students

He said a key part of the strategy is to listen to student voices to understand the differing accommodation needs of the diverse population, and then to work more closely with the council and other partners to ensure there is a range of accommodation available which matches those priorities.

“We’re committed to work proactively with partners who are planning and developing new student accommodation, and those who run existing sites, to ensure their plans provide the right range of accommodation for our diverse student population.”

The strategy also intends to tackle existing student accommodation “which isn’t up to scratch” by developing “a consistent approach to formal accreditation across the city”. McAuliffe said the strategy will not only meet student needs, but help to ensure the provision of affordable housing for the rest of the community. He said sustainability was a key goal.

“Many of our staff and alumni are part of Nottingham’s population and we want to see our city thrive for all residents, and by creating adequate good quality, affordable provision for the student market, we are likely to see a knock-on impact on affordability across the [whole] housing market,” said McAuliffe.

Michael Lees, director of campus services at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The Student Living Strategy is the start of something really quite powerful and will benefit our great city enormously by working together for the benefit of Nottingham and all its residents.”

Credible government policy and plan

Daniel Smith, an experienced student accommodation and sustainability consultant and former chief partnerships officer with Unilodgers, told University World News: “I think the approach in Nottingham is a positive start to showcasing collaboration between the universities and local authority. However, there is a long way to go to develop a credible action plan and timeline that are going to satisfy the student demand in Nottingham.

“What we as an industry need is a credible government policy on international students and an action plan blueprint on how local councils, universities and the private sector can work together to provide enough affordable housing options for all students.”

He recently published a blog on LinkedIn spelling out the problems he saw ahead for international students in the UK and said that while there may be a fall of up to 10% in Chinese students next year, Indian applications have increased by 69% and Nigerian student applications have gone up by 135%.

He warned that PBSA operators are over-exposed to relying on the Chinese market, where students are prepared to pay £40 (US$50) per week more than Indian students and reserve accommodation earlier in the recruitment cycle.

Nigerian students accounted for 40% of foreign students accompanied by dependants, despite representing just 7% of all foreign students in the UK – and their number is rising sharply.

“PBSA is definitely not set up for dealing with dependants and children. They can cope with double occupancy at best,” warned Smith.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.