In their latest annual accommodation costs survey report (93-page / 11.6MB PDF), Unipol and the NUS highlighted the growing problem of mental health illness in the higher education sector. They said that both institutions and student accommodation providers in the private sector can do more to combat the issue.
"We recommend that, in light of the current crisis in student mental health, all providers should be considering how a community can be nurtured, using social spaces and optional residential life programmes as common good practice," Unipol and the NUS said in their report.
"All providers should recognise the unique role they have in their residents’ lives, and accordingly seek to join up with universities and students’ unions to ensure that student wellbeing is promoted in a joined-up way, offering campus-wide solutions and quick access to mental health support services for those in need," they said.
For new student housing stock, this means promoting "wellbeing by design", with accommodation provided that is "more social, supported by investment in residential life; and are configured with more social space that can be used for informal study as well as socialising," Unipol and the NUS.
Victoria Goddard of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com and host of the launch of the report by Unipol and the NUS, welcomed the focus given to student mental health issues in the report.
"Universities have a duty to care for students with mental health issues and there is growing pressure on them to provide students affected with mental health illness with appropriate support," Goddard said. "While there are legal implications for institutions to consider over how to meet that duty, the report by Unipol and the NUS points to the role that accommodation has to play. For example, the report promotes a shift away from 'studio' accommodation – which continues to grow in popularity among private sector providers – to accommodation that supports social inclusion and interaction, such as catered accommodation and accommodation with large communal areas."
According to the report, studios account for 19% of all the privately-provided stock nationally, up from 11% in 2015/16. Unipol and the NUS said, though, that they "occupy key building sites that could be used to house many more students" and are also "expensive and militate against any affordability agenda". They called for development in student studio apartments to be subject to stricter planning requirements.
"We recommend that planners should intervene and call time on over-investment in the studio market and should impose strict conditions on the granting of permission for more studios," Unipol and the NUS said. "Applicants should be required to demonstrate an alternative use and studios should meet larger minimum size standards that would allow unused units to be repurposed for the fast-developing co-living movement or single key worker housing."
Unipol and the NUS backed "the townhouse model" for new student accommodation, with "larger units accommodating larger numbers of students, served by larger catered areas and, importantly, larger social spaces".
The new report highlighted the rising cost of student accommodation – up nearly a third since 2011/12. While Unipol and the NUS acknowledged that providers face pricing challenges due to oversupply, competition in the market and commercial 'bottom line' pressures, they noted that yearly rent rises have been above the rate of inflation as measured in the retail price index.
Goddard said: "There has been a move towards providing increasingly 'luxurious' accommodation for students, However, as the report identified, this is having an impact on the overall cost of student accommodation and has led to a decline in 'standard stock' which is generally more affordable."
The report said that a factor in the cost gap between the private sector accommodation and the halls of residence provided by institutions was that the average contract length is six weeks longer, at 46 weeks, for private accommodation. It said, though, that longer lets may suit some students.
"Typically, undergraduates may favour a shorter letting year, because there is minimal teaching over the summer period," the report said. "Postgraduates, on the other hand, may find a longer letting year useful. This said, not all long lets are taken up by postgraduate students, as some late undergraduate entrants resort to taking rooms on longer tenancies when shorter ones are no longer available."
According to the survey carried out for the report, 59% of institutions that responded said that their highest-priced accommodation sold out most quickly. The report also found that the cost of living for students is growing quicker than the rate of increase in student finance.
Unipol and the NUS said: "We recommend that all providers should take steps to ensure the provision of affordable stock now and incorporate these into their strategies. For institutions, it is recommended that, as a minimum, 25% of all rents charged should fall within the bottom quartile of their rent structure; for private providers this should also be the case at each accommodation site they run. Against this measure, universities currently come up three percentage points short, and the private sector 18."