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All change: Reflections on the Universities UK Conference 2021

Jenny Shaw considers the key messages from the Universities UK National Conference 2021, and what these might mean for student accommodation heading into the new academic year and beyond.

This year’s Universities UK Conference came at a critical time for the sector and for the UK as a whole. We’ve had the great privilege to attend this conference for the last 10 years and, while every year brings its challenges and opportunities for the sector, they have never felt so all-encompassing as they did last week. At this year’s conference we were collectively trying to make sense of higher education’s place in a country that has undergone two years of profound change: socially, economically and politically.

On the one hand, there are opportunities. UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant projected up to a million university applicants by 2025, and science minister Amanda Solloway spoke about the importance of investment in university research to help deliver the Build Back Better and Levelling Up agendas. Universities UK president, Professor Steve West, proposed the possibility of “nipping at the heels of the US” in terms of international student recruitment. Along with a number of other speakers, he also highlighted the essential role that universities need to play in tackling climate change.

But on the other hand, there are challenges, and in one of his final speeches in the role of education minister, Gavin Williamson tempered his praise for the sector with warnings on face-to face-teaching, minimum entry standards to university and free speech. Elsewhere in the conference there was acknowledgement that, although universities have been recognised for their role in fighting Covid, there is still more work to be done to engage with communities and win wider confidence in science and academic expertise.

Above all there is change, and from the perspective of student housing, the critical changes are those that have an impact on the number of students seeking accommodation, and what they will need from it.

The budget and comprehensive spending review on 27 October will help us to understand the size and shape of the HE sector over the coming years. A key uncertainty here is the weight – and therefore funding – that will be allocated to vocational routes. Some of this will of course come to universities in the form of degree apprenticeships and other higher level vocational options, but this may well open up a wider spectrum of accommodation needs. As well as understanding these, we need to understand whether these will displace some “traditional” students or be in addition to them. The sharp rise in the number of 18-year-olds, and participation rates at record levels, suggests the latter, but in the end it will come down to funding.

Admissions reform is still underway as a key pillar of government policy. The consensus of the fair access panel discussion was that full-blown post-qualification admissions raised too many timing issues and that moving to a January start date was unworkable. However, the way forward is not yet clear, and even a post-qualification offers process would affect the way that first year students apply for their accommodation.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement, being piloted next year, was described by Gavin Williamson as “a season ticket to higher education.” Potentially this could lead to greater demand over time for shorter term accommodation needs, and would likely be additional to the full time student accommodation market.

Looking back now, almost a week after the Universities UK Conference, my abiding impression is of a sector rolling up its collective sleeves and facing into an uncertain future. Having been in the sector since the mid-90s I’ve experienced many changes and a few existential crises, but universities are resilient and adaptable.

As Amanda Solloway’s upbeat speech reminded us, universities have helped us manage Covid, they attract significant international investment and help keep our industries competitive. They are crucial to the life chances of young people and provide the research and skills to meet the challenges we have ahead of us as a nation and, indeed, as a world.

Within such a context, accommodating students can feel like a humble endeavour, but supply of the right accommodation in the right places at the right time is a crucial cog in the machine. Without a safe, comfortable and supportive home, students cannot achieve their best and realise their potential, which has profound implications for the individual and beyond. So, right now, we too are rolling up our sleeves, and while we’re busy welcoming this year’s cohort of students, we’re also working to make sense of the uncertainties of the next few years to help meet the evolving needs of our university partners.

 

What did this year’s admissions cycle mean for universities, students and accommodation providers? Find out in our ‘Expectations v Reality of the Admissions Cycle’ episode of Accommodation Matters: