As with so much in the wider property world, higher education and subsequently the student accommodation market is very much subject to the vagaries of government policy. 

Paddy Jackman

Paddy Jackman

Universities and their student recruitment strategies are frequently stymied as a result of the battles between various government departments. HM Treasury continually questions the overall cost of higher education while the current home secretary apparently sees controlling international student numbers as a tool to tackle overall immigration. Why can’t universities get their voice heard effectively at the top table?

In terms of maintaining influence, it probably does not help that, in recent years, responsibility for universities as a sector has been shunted from one government department to another. They used to come under the Department for Education but were generally left alone given that funding was regulated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In 2007, they were moved to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, which in 2009 was itself subsumed within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Here they stayed until 2016 when then prime minister Theresa May moved them partially back to the Department for Education while keeping research responsibilities within the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It is somewhat ironic that when today so much attention is being given to developing a sense of belonging for students at their respective institutions, government itself doesn’t know where universities belong.

Influence is clearly also gained through establishing strong personal working relationships. On that front, it probably doesn’t help that there have been 10 secretaries of state for education since 2010.

This transient existence in terms of government department responsibility and multiple secretaries of state means that it is questionable whether universities retain influence where it is needed. Do all in government really understand the consequences of the Home Office’s recent announcement to restrict dependent visas? Clearly this will have a significant impact on many university strategies in terms of student recruitment. The developing markets of India, Nigeria and Pakistan all had a high number of students who sought to bring dependents with them as, typically, they studied for a one-year taught masters qualification. Dependent visas will be limited to postgraduate research students from January 2024 and, as a result, for some, the UK will be less attractive as an education destination.

Students in corridor

Source: Shutterstock/4PM production

As has been emphasised in previous articles due to government policy on restricting the UK undergraduate tuition fee, universities have very limited options in terms of revenue growth to offset their ever-increasing costs, with an expansion of overseas recruitment being one of the very few strings to the bow that they have left. So, universities are now facing major decisions as to their medium-term international recruitment strategies – do you continue in the same territories seeking to identify students with no dependents? Do you switch markets? Do you change the course offering leading to less time being required on campus? The answers to all these questions will have an impact on the demand for student accommodation.

The government has been quick to bring in these visa restriction changes, presumably to grab the headlines in the Daily Mail, but the consequences for universities will be immediate and it will take time to implement new strategies. It could have been worse in that effective lobbying from the Department for Education managed to ensure that the two-year post-study visa, which is vital in attracting students from India and Nigeria, was not withdrawn, as wanted by the Home Office. There is already some evidence to suggest that this September’s and January 2024’s intake will be buoyant in terms of international students attempting to beat the dependent restriction deadline, but then what? For those universities that have recruited from the new markets, there must be worries about how they can meet targets for September 2024 and beyond.

If more individual students are recruited rather than students with families, this could drive demand for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), but as is widely acknowledged, students from the new markets typically require a more affordable product than has been developed for students from affluent Chinese families.

With so many other national and global issues, it is highly unlikely that higher education will be at the forefront of any election campaign expected towards the latter part of 2024. However, what is needed is a government that understands or preferably champions the vital role that universities can play in so many aspects of the national agenda. Consistent policies are required that will allow institutions to plan for the long term rather than having to take knee-jerk reactions to government initiatives that are made for reasons entirely unconnected to the benefit of universities or indeed the education of students.

Paddy Jackman is director of university partnerships at Campus Living Villages UK