Purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) and student housing: research
This report is the main output from a research project we commissioned in January 2022. The research was commissioned to inform the work of the Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) Review Group.
6. Student Housing Experiences
This chapter reflects on student experiences of living in PBSA, focusing on their views on the quality and condition of PBSA, their views on whether PBSA offers a sense of home, perceptions of safety and security, and relationships with flatmates and providers. The chapter also explores how experiences may vary for those with a range of housing needs.
Housing Quality, Condition and Space
Students were generally satisfied with the overall quality of their PBSA, though there were points of dissatisfaction or poor quality. Student satisfaction was often judged in relation to expectations of quality relative to the price that they could afford. For example, GL3 noted that their accommodation was "really basic … but I know that this is what I get for what I pay." Students often referred to the basic functionality of their room and the experience of living in a relatively uniform product with standardised design and placement of furnishings.
Students appreciated things like modern and good quality furniture, cooking facilities, larger beds and en-suite rooms. Where students expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of their housing, this often related to the standard or condition of amenities or the living space. Many students across case study areas and types of PBSA highlighted problems of insufficiently sized amenities shared between flatmates, such as fridge or freezers or limited laundry facilities which also demanded additional charges. Some students also highlighted issues to do with noise, which affected housing experiences, including noise from boilers, poor sound insulation between bedrooms, and dissatisfaction with the general noise of day-to-day living. In Glasgow, students living within university-provided PBSA noted differences between the quality of newly renovated buildings and those which were older that had not been renovated, which created disparity in relation to perceptions of quality. Some students living in older buildings felt that the overall design was not appropriate for contemporary living preferences, noting for instance a lack of ventilation in "long winding corridors" (GL7).
In interviews, students discussed their use of personal and communal spaces within PBSA. Students typically had a bedroom as their private space, with kitchens shared with flatmates or others on their floor, though some students in St Andrews had experience of sharing a bedroom in their first year. Some PBSA buildings also had a common room shared with other flats in their building.
Use of communal space was affected by relationships with flatmates and the extent to which students felt comfortable in each other's company. Some students saw communal areas within their flats and their building as an opportunity to socialise and form friendships in an informal environment. However, others were less comfortable using these spaces. For example, DN7 explained that they were "put off going to cook a meal or leaving my room if I don't feel like socialising", while others felt that communal areas themselves were poorly designed with limited space for socialising. For instance, GL9 highlighted that they would have liked space to mix with flatmates outside their kitchen, appeared to act not only as a food preparation area but as the main communal space for students to use outside their bedrooms. ED9 reflected that their interactions were limited by the nature of the accommodation, as their bedrooms were small and other spaces were multi-functional and not always appropriate for socialising: "You can feel quite claustrophobic in these rooms because they're very, very small. If you invite someone over, you have to go into the kitchen."
Students perceived a difference in the provision of common areas and spaces between private and university providers. GL3 explained that private accommodation had "more communal spaces, they've got places where people can meet up", while other students in Dundee and St Andrews perceived that living in private forms of accommodation, including the PRS, seemed to offer more communal space and amenities for students.
Student perceptions of the adequacy of their private space was mixed. Students in shared bedrooms in St Andrews reflected that their experience was heavily contingent on establishing a positive relationship with their roommate, though some participants were from international backgrounds where bedroom sharing is more common. While students did not have expectations that their rooms would be large, they placed value on "decently sized" desks and beds (DN7) and on space to move within their room. Others were less satisfied where their rooms were small, and some students, such as GL8 in university accommodation, noted that "there is a big variety in the room sizes" within the same flat. Satisfaction with private space also depended upon how students desired to use it. Some students appreciated large desks and lots of plugs that supported their ability to use their bedrooms as study spaces, though others highlighted that they needed different environments for study and that noise within buildings affected their ability to study.
In addition to bedrooms, some students also had en-suite bathrooms, with this type of privacy often a key factor in choosing accommodation, subject to affordability. Most students preferred to have their own bathroom but not all could afford this. Students with en-suites also reported that they could often be too small, with these facilities commonly described as "like an aeroplane toilet, with a shower in it" (ED9). However, it was also recognised that compromises on space were often necessary to access accommodation that was affordable.
There was also varied levels of satisfaction with the design of PBSA buildings. Many students positively described accommodation that had larger windows, higher ceilings, and access to natural light, while others dissatisfied with lighting commented that it "changes the whole atmosphere of it" (DN3). Students also appreciated accommodation that looked out onto green space or trees, and others that lived at higher density or that had views looking into neighbouring buildings felt uncomfortable.
Feelings of Home and Household Relationships
Students' views on the extent to which they felt at home in their student accommodation differed. While some described feelings of home, others not only did not feel at home, but also felt that PBSA could not really provide these feelings. The extent to which this was problematic also varied. Some students now living in the PRS valued the greater sense of home that the felt able to achieve compared to PBSA, while others living in PBSA perceived other forms of tenure to offer greater opportunities for personalisation of housing. One reason for this may be that PBSA is viewed as a transitional form of housing, where the layout does not always generate a feeling of living in a 'home' and relationships with flatmates are often emerging and developing, whereas students in the PRS often chose to live with existing friendship groups or had opportunities to understand whether they may be compatible with potential housemates.
Students living in PBSA spoke of their accommodation as being functional and uniform and of their efforts to create a sense of home through personalisation of the space by "decorating it, putting my stuff out" (DN2). GL1 noted that they had been able to "personalise it a fair bit" and that it was "getting to a point now where it does feel a bit more like a sort of home." Some students desired more opportunities to personalise space, such as more shelves or pinboards, and also highlighted restrictions imposed by accommodation providers that prevented them from fixing things to the walls. This contrasted with students living in the PRS who felt that they were able to personalise their accommodation to a greater degree, for instance by renting unfurnished accommodation to furnish it with their own belongings or by negotiating with landlords around decorations. However, it should also be noted that tenants in the PRS are often frustrated by restrictions on personalisation of properties and that furnishing properties comes at a cost, so the extent to which students and other tenants are successful in personalising PRS accommodation is likely to vary.
For some students, not feeling at home in PBSA was not perceived as problematic. When asked whether their accommodation felt like home, DN5 explained that "it's a university accommodation, I don't think it should", although they were comfortable living there, while GL14 noted that PBSA "doesn't feel like a home … it's definitely just somewhere that I stay".
Feelings of home were also shaped by household relationships. Some students with a family home maintained a view that that was their 'real' home – ED1 explained that "I have a very strong definition of home being where my parents live" – though this was not consistent, as others reported that the independence of living away from families provided a sense of homeliness, and others had formed positive relationships with flatmates: "the place you live affects your mental wellbeing a lot and I'm actually grateful to my flatmates, because they're really kind and they are really helpful" (DN4). This relational element of homemaking was echoed by others; ED14 valued that they "always have someone to talk to" while GL7 highlighted that it was the relations within their household that shaped a sense of home rather than the physicality of the building: "Even if the actual building doesn't feel like a home, I've built up a really nice friend group in halls … they really do feel like an almost, sort of family, and that's quite nice."
Accommodation experiences were therefore an important aspect on the formation of student relationships and the way in which students experience their housing. However, some students felt that the design of their accommodation was not necessarily conducive to fostering close relationships, often due to limited amounts of communal space. GL9 explained that their accommodation "feels like I'm in a hotel room", while others reported minimal interactions with those that they lived with. Some students spoke of the difficulties they encountered with untidy flatmates, leaving students feeling like their flatmates "don't have respect for you" (STA6). This created tensions within accommodation and resulted in students modifying their behaviours, such as avoiding using communal space at the same time as flatmates. Where problems had arisen, students in university owned PBSA felt that this had been handled well by the management by giving options for room and flat changes.
Safety and Security
One of the attractions of living in PBSA for students was the heightened sense of safety and security that it was perceived to offer. Survey results showed that 87% of PBSA respondents agreed that they felt safe living in their property compared to 80% in the PRS. This was reaffirmed in interviews. Both university and private accommodation providers were perceived as reputable, especially for international students moving to new locations, and the presence of on-site staff and support services provided reassurance. Students valued the visible presence of on-site security staff and the ability to call on them to resolve any concerns at any time of the day or night.
Students also valued security provisions built into the accommodation, including swipe card access restricted to those living in the particular block or building and locks for flats and individual bedrooms. Where students had concerns over safety, one of the more frequently cited issues related to non-residents gaining access to accommodation, particularly given the potential anonymity that the larger populations in residence within PBSA buildings afforded. Perceptions of security were also affected by the wider neighbourhood in which accommodation was located. Many students were in locations where this had been a key part of their accommodation choices: "If I have to walk back home at night there are still a lot of people outside, so I feel very secure here to get home late at night and also in my accommodation" (GL4). However, other students in PBSA lived in areas where they felt more unsafe: "it's not a bad neighbourhood, but it's not one of those where I'd particularly want to be out alone after dark" (GL1). Some students spoke of researching crime statistics of their neighbourhood to help inform accommodation choices.
Student and Provider Relationships
Student relationships with their provider varied, often in relation to whether they used or benefited from particular services such as wellbeing support or repairs and maintenance.
Students living in university-provided accommodation often referred to live-in support staff (also referred to as wardens, typically postgraduate students) as key sources of support: "we have a group of residence assistants, all students living in this building, and they would organise regular activities" (ED1). Students valued these staff for their organisation of communal events within PBSA, which were seen as important to student wellbeing and fostering positive relationships. This was particularly key for international students, where events or initiatives were organised for specific groups, such as celebrating different cultural holiday seasons. Live-in support staff were also valued as a source for support with individual wellbeing if students had problems they wished to raise. Some students that had lived in PBSA during the Covid-19 pandemic reported varied relationships with providers during this time, ranging from regular welfare emails and calls during periods of isolation and restrictions on social interactions, to others who felt providers had been more distant.
Other students had minimal relationships with their providers, with communication restricted to times where they required specific forms of support with maintenance issues. Students were generally aware that they could approach their providers if they had problems, though some students were also either unaware or confused as to who their provider actually was due to ownership and management arrangements. This was the case in university-provided PBSA, in Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews where it was highlighted or perceived that management of facilities had been outsourced to third parties and that this created confusion. ED13 explained that "I'm not too sure who my landlord would be. Maybe I just see the university and then kind of the staff helping out" while ED8 commented that "I couldn't tell you the specifics about, if it's owned by a private loan or landlord or if it's owned by the university themselves." While most students had not had a specific dispute with their providers, confusion over ownership and management arrangements contributed to a lack of awareness as to how students would seek support if they did have a problem with their PBSA provider (as opposed to a more minor problem with maintenance). GL7 reflected that "it's not very transparent … who, like, independently oversees the quality of student accommodation, where you can actually go, they haven't given us any information." This contrasted with interviewees in the PRS, where there was a greater knowledge of sources of support from Citizens Advice Bureaus, local authorities, and renters' unions.
Students primarily interacted with their providers around repairs and maintenance issues. In general, students living in PBSA were able to report repairs easily. DN3, living in university owned but outsourced managed PBSA, felt that "the staff here are fairly responsive when it's something important that goes wrong", a view reflected by many other students across the case study locations. However, some students felt that providers were quick to resolve legally obliged or safety issues, but slower in replacing broken or degraded amenities such as ironing boards, hoovers and chairs. One student, living in a lower-cost private PBSA, felt that the speed of maintenance in university-provided PBSA had been "a lot better" (Gl1) and other students in university-provided PBSA explained that their provider undertook routine maintenance checks, which meant "if there's an issue you don't really need to report it since they would catch it anyway" (ED12).
In interviews, the experiences of students living in PBSA with respect to repairs and maintenance compared favourably to those in the PRS. In PBSA, students generally found it easy to report issues but students in the PRS described more challenges in getting work done. ED3 in the PRS described living with a leak for a year with little response from their landlord or letting agent, while others reported issues of mould that affected their health and wellbeing. Other students in the PRS also reported being blamed for repair problems that were not their fault and became embroiled in disputes over unfair retention of deposits.
Student Tenancies and Tenancy Rights
Interview and survey data highlighted varied awareness of tenancy rights. Students in the PRS were frequently aware of their tenancy rights, though this did not always mean they found them easy to enforce. Students reported being aware of protections from eviction in the PRS and appreciated these, though others had also entered more informal and precarious letting arrangements.
In PBSA, some students were aware of "what's included in the contract, what's not, you're allowed to do this and not this" (DN2), though others had found it more difficult to understand rights and responsibilities due to the length and "legal jargon" (GL2) used in tenancy agreements.
Students in PBSA demonstrated most knowledge around the length of their contract and their reduced levels of flexibility to leave accommodation early. GL1 explained that "if you choose to leave early then you're liable for the rent for your room", while ED11 reflected that "the contract is ending about two months after my uni has finished". This issue was reported by other students, primarily at undergraduate level, who desired more flexibility to leave accommodation before the end of the standard tenancy length. This was noted by GL3 who argued that "you should be able to provider a notice because so many things can come up in your life." Some students moving for less than a full academic year, such as through Erasmus schemes, also reflected that it was difficult to secure housing in PBSA and the PRS due to their need for shorter tenancy lengths, though others reported some success in finding PBSA for shorter periods. It is likely that this experience varies according to the supply of PBSA in different places.
There were students who wished to extend their contracts beyond standard tenancy lengths and into the summer months. This was possible for some students but other encountered difficulties or barriers, including the need to move from their home to different buildings from the same accommodation due to management efficiencies and due to the use of accommodation for popular events such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (ED9). Some students also highlighted that they found out about university-provided PBSA room allocations "really late … it was August so that was obviously a bit stressful waiting so late to find out" (GL10). In this particular case, GL10 was a second year student and so their accommodation was not dependent on the success of an application to university as it may be for first years who are typically allocated accommodation close to the start of term.
The Needs and Experiences of Student Groups
This section explores the way in which experiences vary for different groups of students, for example related to disability, sexual orientation, cultural background, or access to family support. While these issues are considered separately below, it is important to acknowledge that some students' experiences fall across multiple categories, and that this can compound the challenges they face in navigating and experiencing student accommodation.
Because of the information already provided about participants' accommodation above, student material here is presented with use of pseudonyms and with no locational information alongside quotes to avoid the potential of linking data to student identities and to avoid compromising anonymity.
Students were asked during interviews about the extent to which accommodation met their needs, including issues of disability and accessibility. Typically, students in the study with specific access needs were living in PBSA, and were able to request rooms that would be accessible to them. Other students reflected on the relative (in)accessibility of their accommodation, with students noting that PBSA access was often via steps and many buildings lacked ramps, rendering them inaccessible for wheelchair users.
Disabilities guided accommodation choice, including locational preferences. 'Jade' had sought a building with a life because of "damage in my arm from an accident" while others desired to live in close proximity to university buildings for purposes of access.
However, not all students had been able to easily access accommodation which met their needs. For example, one student lived with a neurological disorders which could also affect their muscle tone, which meant that they were reliant on buses. 'Rowan' had had to live further away from their university than they would have liked in order to be able to access affordable PBSA. Affordability issues were also exacerbated where students required en-suite bedrooms due to long-term health conditions, something described by Rowan as a "medical necessity" but one which had cost implications because providers "jack up the prices a lot."
Another student, living in private PBSA, occupied a room adapted for a wheelchair user, although this was not necessary for their own access needs. The room included an alarm in the bathroom, which one night "randomly went off", only for the student to discover that security staff were unresponsive and unaware as to what the alarm was. While in this instance the response and support of staff was lacking, other students in PBSA highlighted that support for disabled people at their university had improved and believed that it marked the university out as an inclusive environment.
Student participants perceived universities as having an important role to play in signalling and promoting inclusive environments, including within accommodation. Several students in one case study location highlighted the importance of their institution being "really proactive about gay rights which is … one of the things that really appealed to me" ('Summer'). Another student commented that "the accommodation in general is really LGBT accepting" and LGBTQ+ students reflected on the importance of moving into an inclusive building and of feeling comfortable in being themselves around flatmates.
However, these positive experiences were not universal. 'Kelly' explained their difficult relationship with their flatmates and the experience of hearing homophobic comments, while 'Chris' felt that concern over how flatmates would react to their sexual orientation "diminishes self-expression a bit because you just don't really want to be hassled." Students reflected that they may feel more open and safe in flats "around people I could identify with" (Chris) but that created another risk in that increasing separation with others may inadvertently create or exacerbate prejudice. This shows the difficult negotiations that students had to engage with, echoed by 'Matias' who described "trying to figure out if your flatmates are homophobic or something."
Living with strangers therefore presents difficulties for some students in relation to their ability to express their own self-identity. While relationships within flats may be positive, individuals still have to negotiate communal spaces which may be shared by large numbers of residents, and to find a way to do this in a way that feels safe and comfortable.
Students with Experience of Estrangement
A small number of students who are currently estranged from their families participated in the research. It is worth noting that some other students did not expressly identify as estranged but did indicate that they had no access to family support and had some commonalities with estranged students as a result, such as their ability to handle affordability problems.
Students living in PBSA had a strong belief that their accommodation should provide a sense of home. Chris explained that "I think emotionally I just needed a place that felt like home", while Rowan described the way in which they had tried to create a "general feel of homeliness" because whilst "it's not the best accommodation, it's still my home at the end of the day." This contrasted with students who had not experienced estrangement referenced earlier in this chapter, who had varied views as to whether PBSA should be felt as a home or not.
Both Chris and Rowan described the way in which they could be confronted by their experience of estrangement through mundane processes associated with student life, processes which had been set up with non-estranged students in mind. Rowan highlighted that "people always just assume that we've got somewhere else to go" and felt that estranged students are "kind of an afterthought really." The implication of this is that processes were not always inclusive for students who did not fit the model of an individual who would return to a family home in holiday periods or have access to the financial and emotional support of wider family networks. For example, in accessing accommodation students are often required to provide a guarantor who would be liable for rent payments, something which estranged students were unable to provide and sought university support with. Despite that some universities offer a guarantor service, Rowan's private PBSA provider required the use of one of two specific guarantor companies, for which Rowan had to pay a fee to use "because I'm estranged".
Similar anxieties arose in relation to securing summer accommodation. Here, there was a key distinction between Chris, living in university-provided accommodation who was offered summer accommodation, and Rowan, living in private PBSA, who reported delays and difficulties in extending a contract through the summer months due to a lack of prioritisation from their provider. This led Rowan to reflect that "housing security is something that's always on the back of my mind." While Chris had been pleased to be offered summer accommodation, the university had offered a room in a different building elsewhere in the city, creating anxiety around displacement from areas that they had connections with and felt settled in. Living with housing precarity and displacement also affected one student who did not explicitly identify as estranged, but who reported experiences of homelessness and lacked family support. They explained that housing insecurity had a strong negative impact on their studies and led them to consider withdrawing from their studies due to difficulties in securing and affording a stable home.
Cultural Needs and Inclusive Environments
Students in the study also identified other issues related to creating inclusive living environments. A number of students at one university highlighted the inclusivity of their campus, noting the importance of the community that they lived in, with no personal experiences of "discrimination of any sort, even for different ethnicities and such." However, other students highlighted that their cultural needs were not always met in their accommodation, for example 'Nia' noted that their biggest trade-off was to have a shared bathroom with people of another gender and that they found it "really uncomfortable to have a sharing bathroom" but that they had "no choice".
Other students reported cultural clashes within flats, for instance where flatmates held lots of parties and other students were "from a culture where parties are not in my culture" (Nia). Similarly, 'Bethany' explained that cultural differences with their flatmates of a different nationality was a reason for moving out of accommodation. An international student also described a negative experience of living in PBSA with home students who engaged in offensive and discriminatory behaviour that "didn't really respect other cultures" ('Lily') and that undermined their feelings of safety, security and home in PBSA. In addition, behaviours regarded as offensive were also attributed to a lack of understanding, for example: "they think I come from China but I don't really agree with that because I'm actually from Hong Kong, but they are not bothered to distinguish the two so I feel really offended" (Lily). For Lily, "the thing that affects my wellbeing is the cultural barrier", and they felt that the university could more proactively "prepare the local students to live with international students".
- This chapter has highlighted some of the different experiences of student accommodation.
- In general, students who participated in interviews were relatively satisfied with PBSA. Many reported that their accommodation was uniform and functional in design, but that this matched their expectations and needs.
- Students valued key design details such as access to natural light, views of green space, and ventilation in buildings.
- Communal spaces in PBSA were valued by students, though some felt that some older PBSA does not provide enough of this space. Use of communal space varies according to household relationships, with some students dissuaded from using space where they do not have positive or comfortable relationships with those they share with.
- The extent to which students felt at home in PBSA varied. Some described feeling at home and attempted to personalise their rooms but were restricted from doing so by providers. Others did not feel at home, sometimes because of poor household relationships or by an expectation that they may not live in PBSA for long.
- Students felt that staff in university-owned PBSA played an important role with respect to wellbeing and on-site security, though many students had a minimal relationship with their provider restricted to requests for repairs and maintenance.
- Students in PBSA were less aware of their tenancy rights than those in the PRS and some were dissatisfied with the perceived inflexibility of tenancy agreements in the PBSA sector.
- Students noted that universities attempted to be inclusive and diverse environments and appreciated attempts to promote these within institutions and accommodation.
- However, students highlighted areas where this could be improved, including in considering how the needs of disabled students are understood, the diversity of accommodation provision in meeting the diverse needs of students, and how positive relationships between students from different cultural and demographic backgrounds can be promoted once they are living together.
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