University students have a choice about where they live. The classic first year in university is spent in student accommodation called halls of residence. Others live in private sector houses and flats or live at home with their parents. I have written a comprehensive post for live at home students and their parents packed with information.
I thought that moving into halls of residence was a simple decision and that the entire stock of student accommodation was in purpose-built blocks which were owned and administered by universities. How wrong I was! Over the past couple of years, I have found out a lot of interesting facts about halls of residence that I was completely unaware of before. Here they are!
Who lives in halls of residence?
Halls of residence is, by far, the most popular choice for first year students. For the academic year 2015/2016 records show that 336,045 students lived in accommodation maintained by the academic institution and a further 132,170 lived in private sector halls. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students.
From what I can gather from looking at several university websites, they all try to offer first year students a room in halls of residence. This is not the same thing as guaranteeing a place and every year some students may not be able to get in. The university will offer support to find alternative student accommodation. The students that are least likely to get a room in halls of residence are those that are awarded a place through clearing.
Who owns and manages the student accommodation in halls of residence?
The halls student accommodation will either be owned and manged by the university or by a private company. According to the property website rightmove, private sector involvement in halls of residence accommodation is a comparatively new addition to the student accommodation market. It is seen as a compromise between university accommodation and traditional rented houses and I suppose it is a way of getting private money into the higher education sector which frees up university money to do other things.
The two largest private providers of student accommodation in the UK are Unite Students who have properties in many university cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Exeter and Liberty Living who have halls in Cardiff, Bristol and Nottingham as well as many other locations.
I cannot imagine that investors would get involved if there was no money to be made in this sector and it is not without controversy. I found two less than complementary articles (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/11/britains-shamefully-shoddy-student-housing and https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/29/en-suite-education-the-rise-of-luxury-student-housing) about the so-called purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) sector that is currently worth a whopping £46bn. The articles raise concerns about failed exterior cladding safety tests and inferior space standards as well as poor daylight levels and acoustics. Allegedly, this is because PBSA do not have to comply with the usual standards that apply to blocks of flats. My own experience is that my daughter’s shared flat was well-lit, pretty spacious and that fire safety was taken seriously. There was a sprinkler in her room and weekly tests of the fire alarm.
What facilities are provided in halls of residence?
The majority of halls of residence are self-catering although some have a catered option. Most share some form of facilities. Students will have their own bedroom and may share bathroom facilities, a lounge or a kitchen. Alternatively, they will have a bedroom with an en suite and only share a kitchen and lounge.
Most bedrooms have a bed, desk, storage for clothes and heating. It is usual for all bills to be included such as gas, electricity, WIFI, and water rates. This makes it easier to budget. En suite bathrooms have a shower, wash hand basin and toilet. Shared kitchens usually have fridge-freezers, a hob and an oven as well as storage space, a vacuum cleaner and even refuse bins. Some may have a microwave. It is usual for students to have to supply things like toasters and kettles themselves. It is very unusual for them to have parking available but most will have bike racks.
Choosing which halls of residence is most suitable
Some universities will have an astonishing array of halls to choose from whereas others will have one halls and you either take it or leave it. It is worth thinking about the choice of accommodation early on because the most popular choices get booked up quickly.
Many universities have sophisticated search facilities where you can even filter your results by suitability (if you are single, married etc.), if you have any special requirements such as wheel chair access, and if you want an en suite or not. A good example is found here.
Criteria to bear in mind when selecting student accommodation in halls of residence
1. Special requirements. Some students require wheel chair access whilst others need hearing impairment facilities. Some, but not all, halls will provide this.
2. Who to share with. Some flats are designated as female only and, if you are a female, you need to decide if this makes you more or less comfortable. My daughter chose a mixed gender flat and this worked best for her. There is often an option to state a preference for ‘quiet’ or ‘rowdy’ flat mates. I thought this was quite tricky! After all, there’s ‘quiet’ as in ‘I like to get a good night’s sleep a few times a week’ and then there’s ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody so leave me alone’ sort of quiet. There’s rowdy as in ‘I like to party a few times a week’ and there’s ‘I wake up naked in a police cell several times a term’ type of rowdy! If in doubt, it may be better to go for the quiet option. After all, you can always go in search of excitement if your flat is a bit lame but it is hard to get away from the noise at 3 am if you have an exam the next day!
3. Language requirements. In Wales, if you are a Welsh learner, you can request to share with other Welsh learners so that you can practice the lingo!
4. Distance from lectures. This is a big consideration and impacts cost as well as convenience. Some halls are so close to the lecture theatres that you can literally stumble out of bed and into the lecture whilst others are so far away that you will have to get a bus. You may, or may not, have to pay for the bus and you will have to take that into account in your budget. Also, it can be inconvenient being stuck on the campus waiting several hours for a bus.
5. Financial considerations. As with all other sectors of the housing market, you get what you pay for and the gap between ‘high end’ student halls and the more basic end of the market is probably a lot wider that you think. Students living in Vita student accommodation (for which they will be paying a higher rent) can look forward to free breakfast, weekly studio cleaning services, a gym and invites to Vita Student events (fashion shows and international nights) which are held in the state-of-the-art Hub spaces. On move-in day, there is a team of ‘people’ who will help with the luggage; the bed will be pre-made and kitchen utensils fully unpacked. This contrasts a little with my own experience of hauling countless cardboard boxes up several flights of stairs when my own daughter moved into halls! Needless to say, not all student accommodation is like this. Not exactly the Young Ones is it!? I bet there isn’t a mouldy pizza or a vomit-stained carpet in sight! Apparently, rooms in the top-end blocks in London go for £25,000 a year.
6. The course being studied. In some universities, students are housed with those that are studying the same course and this gives the best possible opportunity to get to know those on the same course. It is also more likely that all the students will have essays to hand in and lectures at the same time which may make organising the party schedule a bit easier. In other universities, students from all sorts of courses are mixed together which encourages mixing between courses and with a wider group.
Advantages of living in halls
1. It is a controlled environment. This makes it a sort of half-way house between totally independent living and living at home with Mum and Dad. Most bills are included (insurance, WIFI, gas, electric, water, TV in communal areas) so there is less paperwork to cope with. An onsite maintenance team should (in theory) sort out issues fairly quickly. Many have CCTV, access control & 24/7 security which gives Mum and Dad a little more peace of mind. Many accommodation websites even have a section for parents and list ‘pastoral care’ as one of their concerns. This is unlikely to be provided by a private sector landlord!
2. They encourage mixing. Halls are a perfect place to meet people. Many will be willing to put you in touch with your future flat mates before you move in. My daughter had a group chat with many of her future friends a long time before she actually met them in person! This makes moving in day a lot less stressful. A shared kitchen and lounge gives great opportunities for striking up conversations.
3. Maintenance is good. Despite the fears raised in the articles cited above, it’s probably true to say that the maintenance could be a lot worse. The buildings are relatively new (compared to the private rented housing stock) and there are decent standards of maintenance. Many have sprinklers and fire alarms which are tested weekly (although they do have false alarms in the middle of the night too!) It is easy to go to reception if there is a problem.
4. You know what it will cost you. As with all accommodation, you get what you pay for and costs vary greatly but it is the region of around £5,000 per academic year for most students. You can use as much heating, hot water, electricity and gas as you like and you will not be charged anymore. My daughter found the WIFI to be a lot more reliable than the one we have at home!
5. A superior customer service. You do get a sleeker customer experience including glossy websites complete with FAQs and offers. There is usually dedicated halls manager and a 24 hour contact point. I would liken the experience to booking a holiday apartment and found it very different to dealing with a private sector landlord.
6. A nice welcome and pastoral care. My daughter was greeted by balloons, free sweets, an introductory pack with a few drinks and snacks, lots of information about the area and two police officers waiting for us when we arrived! The police were giving out advice and information on freshers’ week safety. One top tip was to fill out a little card (which they provided) with the student’s name and full address at halls. Apparently, it is quite common for students to have a few too many drinks and completely forget where they live! The card cuts down on a lot of police time and allows the officers to take them safely back to halls. My friends have told me of welcome packs with tea, coffee and toilet roll included.
7. You can arrange remotely. There is usually an online booking system so you don’t have to travel to the halls to book it.
8. The tenancy is for the academic year. The tenancy agreement for halls usually starts at the beginning of term in September and ends sometime in July. Private sector landlords are rarely so understanding about shared houses. They often charge full or partial rent for the Summer months.
Disadvantages of living in halls
1. It can be noisy. There are people in your face 24/7 and if you come from a quite environment where you are more comfortable with your own company, this can be challenging but is not unmanageable. You may just need to recognise when you need to close your door and recharge. Go for a walk by yourself or spend a couple of hours in the library. The location can also be noisy as halls are often built on cheaper land which is closer to railway lines or busy roads.
2. It can be messy. Usually the kitchen (and the sometimes the bathroom) are shared with up to six other students (sometimes more). You need to be fairly tolerant of other people’s mess but also willing to comply with basic standards of hygiene or cleanliness if you want your flatmates to tolerate you.
3. There is no car parking. It is unusual for halls of residence to have any car parking facilities available for students apart from those with special needs. This may present difficulties if a student has a car or has a partner with a car who visits frequently.
4. It’s not the real world. Living in halls is a unique experience because you will be surrounded by hundreds (possibly thousands) of other students in a semi-controlled environment. This is not what the real world is like so if you truly want to be independent and enter the adult world you may be disappointed.
5. A guarantor is needed. Private student accommodation providers will require a guarantor and, for most students, this is Mum or Dad. As a guarantor, you would have a legal obligation to the company and have to provide some personal details as well as proof of address (e.g. a council tax bill). You may need to be a UK resident.
6. There is a financial commitment. Once you have signed your agreement, you are fixed in for the whole academic year. Fees are usually paid per term so you lose a lot of your loan/grant straight away. Figures collected in the NUS/ Unipol Accommodation Costs Survey 2015 https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/nus-unipol-accommodation-costs-survey-2015 recorded that in 2015-16 the overall average weekly rent for purpose-built student accommodation was £146.73. This is more than living at home. Nevertheless, there is a big regional variation with, unsurprisingly, London having the highest rents and this is confirmed by another survey by Save the Student.
7. There are upfront fees. There will be some upfront fees to pay before you move into halls of residence and students may need some help with these. Most halls will require a deposit which is in the region of £200 – £300. This will be returned if the accommodation is returned in the same state as it was when you moved in and is required in private housing too. My daughter had to fill out a form when she moved in after inspecting her room to highlight any existing issues. This ensured that she was not blamed for them when she moved out which seems like a good idea. However, it did add to the stress of the whole moving in experience.
8. There are things to buy. This also applies to shared houses. No student can leave home without buying quite a lot of ‘stuff’ which you can read here on university essentials.
Top tips for choosing and living in halls of residence
1. Start thinking about it early – last minute decisions are not always the best.
2. Think about the practicalities of living there and distance from lectures and transport has got to be a major consideration.
3. Take someone with you when you go to have a look around.
4. Work out what you can afford before you commit.
6. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau recommend that you take a look at the code of standards for private halls of residence. http://www.nationalcode.org/Upload/File/NationalCode_Private.pdf
7. Remember that living in halls is a unique experience. You could be living with many hundreds of other students. This is like a village full of students. You probably won’t do this again so try to make the most of it.
8. Remember that you are paying for this service and that you do have the right to complain. Mum and Dad can help with advice here. I was concerned about with the rust around the door of the microwave in my daughter’s shared flat and I recommended that she complained. A new microwave was provided within a few days!
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of your young adults living in halls of residence or even your own!
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