The future of university estates – competition, local growth and regeneration, and future proofing

Article for the Westminster Higher Education Forum

This article considers the future provision of student housing in London in the context of university estate development. Although my comments refer to provision in the capital, they may also apply to other cities with multiple HE institutions that face similar issues in meeting student housing need.  In particular, I wish to encourage greater collaboration between universities to provide the multi-institution occupation of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) and promote far greater flexibility in accommodation nomination agreements. Collaborative and flexible allocation would attract more developers into the student accommodation market and accelerate the spread of PBSA into other areas of London, without compromising conventional housing capacity.

London’s student population is predicted to double by 2025, greatly increasing demand for student housing[1].  In 2014, the Mayor’s Academic Forum predicted there would be 147,000 extra students studying in London by 2026[2], resulting in the need for between 2,000-3,100 additional student beds every year until 2026.  The latest GLA student population projections[3]  predict that numbers are likely to increase further with this trend continuing beyond 2040 and net need exceeding 88,500 additional PBSA bedspaces between 2016 and 2041, or 3,500 annualised over the next 25 years.

Historically, the majority of PBSA has been concentrated in four central London boroughs.  It is unlikely to be commercially viable to build even the previous estimate of 2,000-3,100 new beds required every year within central London – hence the London Plan 2016 sought to meet the strategic as well as local requirements for student housing by encouraging more dispersed provision and reducing pressure on conventional housing stock in existing areas of high concentration.

Not all students can afford premium PBSA in city centres or want to live in a tower block on top of a tube station within easy reach of a nightclub.  Outer London boroughs are key to addressing the shortfall in PBSA stock, by providing ‘affordable’ PBSA that will appeal to a wider market of students. The London Plan dispersal policy was expected to accelerate the spread of PBSA development into other areas of London. Some universities are currently developing new campuses at Stratford but not all HE institutions could contemplate developing a branch campus.  Stand-alone off-campus PBSA blocks have been developed in some areas of outer London such as North Acton and Wembley to meet the needs of specific universities.

However, the provision of university-managed accommodation has not kept pace with the growth in student numbers and universities in London (or branch campuses of universities based outside London) are unlikely to meet the projected need by constructing sufficient new university-managed accommodation.  Many universities already face the challenge that much of their existing accommodation is in need of upgrading to keep up with student expectations and to optimise development on their estates. If, as appears likely, future funding from student fees is constrained, investment by universities in their campuses is likely to be focused on developing and expanding the academic parts of their estates.

The role of private PBSA developers and student accommodation providers will therefore be crucial in ensuring that the sector meets the projected future need for student housing in London (and elsewhere)  and helping to reduce pressure on the private rental market. There is an urgent need to accelerate the rate of construction of PBSA outside existing areas of high student accommodation concentration.

Recently proposed changes to the Mayor’s London Plan require that student accommodation must either be operated directly by a HE institution or the development must have a legal undertaking in place from initial occupation to provide housing for students at specified higher education institutions. Restricting PBSA accommodation to a specified university – rather than defining eligibility on the basis of students attending a HE establishment in the market area – will constrain the delivery and efficient management of PBSA, and reduces student choice.

The New London Plan also includes the provision of an element of affordable student housing in newly developed PBSA schemes. There is no specified maximum amount of affordable housing for student accommodation schemes or cash contribution equivalent; specific provision will be subject to borough considerations of viability but the plan’s guidance highlights the percentage of students receiving the means-tested maintenance grant, which is 33% for London.  Differing local planning policy constraints applicable to new PBSA and uncertainty surrounding financial obligations sought will inevitably discourage developers and funders from investing in this sector.

These proposals will have a detrimental impact on provision of student housing and, combined with other factors such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and/or restrictive nomination requirements secured through s106, will reduce flexibility in the provision of PBSA, thereby increasing further the supply gap in the market.

PBSA developers and student accommodation providers need to be able to maximise flexibility in the provision of accommodation for a range of students from different universities – thereby optimising the efficient use of accommodation, improving choice and enriching the student experience.

A number of speakers referred to the need to break down the barriers between university campuses and the surrounding environment/community.  This challenge applies equally to the dispersed student accommodation policy. Danielle Cullen explained that technological solutions had been developed to deliver bespoke housing solutions catering to individual needs.  Diversity in the student body with multi-institution allocation of bedspaces in dispersed PBSA as well as greater community engagement will be critical in overcoming social as well as physical barriers to integrating PBSA accommodation into the wider community.


Robin Harper BA (Hons) MSc Dip UD IHBC MRTPI

Chartered Town Planner



[1] JLL Research 2015

[2] Mayor’s Academic Forum  Strategic planning issues for student housing in London  Recommendations 2014

[3] GLA Student population projections and accommodation need for new London Plan 2017