Student housing in Scotland is prominent in the news for good reason. There are accommodation shortages and increasingly unaffordable HMO provision, Universities are unable to guarantee accommodation across urban Scotland, and evidence mounts that private landlords are less willing to countenance letting to students. All of this is creating a crisis needing both short term and more considered responses.

Into this mix the Scottish Government funded a team led by CaCHE with colleagues from University of Cardiff and Rettie and Co to undertake research on purpose build student accommodation (PBSA) in Scotland. This is part of a sector wide review reporting to ministers that addresses key issues such as the aftermath of Covid-19 on student accommodation, the quality, quantity and affordability of PBSA in Scotland and its impact on students, neighbourhoods and the higher education sector. The report was published on December 12, 2022.

The research involved three principal elements: an extensive evidence review, interviews with key actors and stakeholders across the sector, plus 45 detailed semi-structured interviews with students to capture their experiences in more depth than hitherto has been possible. A parallel blog by Tom Moore will focus on the student material. Here, the rest of this blog focuses on our research’s key findings and their implications.

Key Findings

First, student accommodation in Scotland is a complex system interacting with local housing systems and communities. There is evidence of elements of the system working well, but less so elsewhere. Student numbers and hence accommodation demand is rising. There are also important strains emerging from external shocks like Covid-19, from internal processes such as landlord retreat from student housing in the mainstream HMO private rented sector (PRS), and political risk arising from ongoing housing and educational policy developments.

Second, despite regulation and oversight, there is considerable variation in the planning, management and growth of mainstream HMO private renting, University-owned (student halls) PBSA and the growing private PBSA sector. We found this variety also in student experiences of their accommodation, including across protected characteristics, also in terms of accommodation quality and value for money. In large part, this is because the existing stock of student accommodation dominates total provision and its average quality changes only slowly.

Third, private sector PBSA is a market-driven approach to expanding the supply of student accommodation, which inevitably creates a range of perspectives that can be in conflict, such as over housing costs and management efficiencies, tenant rights and tenure flexibility, pastoral care, and the impact of new development on existing communities. This is complicated by the 28 days’ notice to quit period introduced during Covid-19 and only recently suspended, as well as the interests of educational institutions and local authority planners. The sector needs to come together and approach PBSA in a joined-up way so that the different perspectives can be more attuned and differences traded-off, albeit within a context where private and public/societal interests have to coincide and align.

Fourth, new PBSA developments relentlessly march upmarket, providing aspirational and higher cost accommodation to a particular segment of the market underserved by more traditional forms of student accommodation. However, in the context of a diverse range of student housing needs and the signalled decline of mainstream PRS, there needs to be more diversity of provision. The sector needs to work together to create the conditions to deliver more mid-range, lower cost PBSA. This is also foregrounded by the demographic evidence that suggests future domestic demand will include more students with less resources.

We know, fifth, remarkably little precisely and robustly about variations in student housing affordability. The sector needs regular, rigorously collected micro data on students’ economic circumstances and their ability to pay actual rents across the different parts of the student accommodation system throughout Scotland. There are also strong grounds to explicitly include estimates of student housing requirements within housing planning and local needs and demand assessments feeding into local housing strategies, given the impact of student populations on housing stock, local communities, and local economies.

Finally, the challenge from politicians and student bodies regarding possible extension of rights, notice periods and rent caps across all student accommodation threatens the university, investor and provider business models. Retaining the present broad approach to PBSA continues to set it apart from the rest of the private rented sector.  This might, however, be more acceptable if compensating actions are worked through on regulation, redress, affordability, rent setting and the supply offer made. The quid pro quo might also include:

This package should include:

  • Exploring a cautious expansion of PBSA repurposing of vacant city centre office and retail space, remaining mindful of issues of housing quality and the suitability of locations, recognising the difficulties found with the expansion of Permitted Development Rights for office-to-residential conversions in England.
  • Strengthening a more visible set of PBSA regulations that are more readily understood by students through more transparent and regular communications, in particular, on redress and a capacity and willingness to amend approaches.
  • There could also be a presumption of flexibility towards the end of annual contracts, enabling student mobility and accounting for the variations that exist within the length of courses and periods when students require accommodation (e.g. building on the break clauses already in contracts and the informal practice that appears to already exist that allows students to leave a week or two early).
  • There should also be monitoring of student accommodation experience across all protected characteristics, including international students, care-experienced and estranged students. Effort must be made to strengthen the accessibility and appropriateness of PBSA properties for the disabled, without penalising their ability to pay or to be fully involved in the student experience. Wider monitoring should also include robust analysis of affordability.
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