The purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector has faced a unique set of challenges over the last few months. Remaining fully operational through the pandemic and meeting the needs of students, while also dealing with intense public scrutiny, has been challenging.

Richard Smith, CEO, Unite

Richard Smith, CEO, Unite Students

The resilience shown by students and our employees has been impressive and according to recent Unite Students’ research, carried out in collaboration with Opinium, our efforts have paid off, with students still highly valuing university life.

We surveyed 1,000 UK students to find out more about their experience during the first months of the new academic year. Encouragingly, despite the disruptions caused by Covid-19, the vast majority (93%) said they intended to remain at university and continue with their courses in January. Additionally, more than four-fifths said it was likely they would remain in their current accommodation to do this.

Four-fifths (82%) said they were happy they moved to student accommodation rather than staying at home during the pandemic. And overall, more than four-fifths of students said they remained happy with their decision to go to university rather than defer.

Some 81% also agreed that although the experience was different to what they expected, they valued their time at university.

These numbers reflect the hard work that the PBSA sector – and the higher education sector more widely – has put in.

It has not, of course, been an easy journey to reach this point. At Unite Students, we have had to make extensive changes, both in terms of the day-to-day operation of buildings and also in wider business management.

Adjustments have been needed to make buildings Covid-secure, from enhanced cleaning regimens to restrictions on the use of communal areas.


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Class act: students continue to see the value of university

Implementing these changes across our entire portfolio – with diverse set-ups and student populations – and providing staff with the training they need has presented logistical challenges. Keeping clear lines of communication open across the business has been the key here.

Our staff have worked incredibly hard in difficult circumstances to support students, some of whom have obviously found the period very difficult. We have also encouraged students to adhere closely to the government’s Covid-19 rules and guidance.

The PBSA sector plays a key role in making university life enjoyable

To help with this, we have increased the wellbeing support available and also developed a new Unite Students’ Home Charter, setting out a mutual agreement about what students can expect from us, and vice versa. This has helped to ensure a clear, mutual understanding and foster a sense of trust.

Difficult decisions

There have also, of course, been difficult actions taken at board level at Unite Students, in terms of the wider running of the business. During the initial UK lockdown, we took the decision to forgo summer-term rents for students returning home due to Covid-19. Mitigating actions were also taken to reduce costs, including the deferral of non-essential operational capital expenditure and reductions in salaries for senior staff. Executive bonuses will also not be paid this year.

In the context of the pandemic, putting the wellbeing of students and staff at the centre of all our decisions has been vital – and something that has ultimately seen us come out the other side of the initial crisis.

Despite the pandemic, students continue to see the value of university, not only in terms of the educational aspect of their degrees but also in the social side and independence that the wider experience provides. The majority are committed to continuing this experience, even though it has been different in 2020, which is encouraging. And, crucially, we remain confident in the growth outlook for the PBSA sector.

Overall, the sector plays a key role in making university life enjoyable. As our research demonstrates, we have risen to the challenges presented by the initial crisis. We are also confident about the outlook for higher education more widely. We have seen record numbers of university applications this year, and the UK’s higher education institutions continue to be highly regarded globally.

Richard Smith is chief executive of Unite Students