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Report forecasts uncertain future for student accommodation

A stagnant economy could drastically reduce the demand for communal student accommodation over the next 20 years, according to a new report.

A new report from the University Alliance and accommodation group UNITE puts forward four possible future outcomes for student accommodation and day-to-day living.

The report, Living and Learning in 2034: A Higher Education Futures Project, aims to chart the possible outcomes of changes to the economy and universities’ role in society.

One of the outcomes put forward is that of a “stagnating economy and competitive society” – where higher education becomes much less about knowledge sharing and “almost exclusively” about training for jobs.

In this scenario, UK students would increasingly stay at home to minimise costs, and begin to occupy a series of “digital islands” with little face to face contact with other students outside of university contact hours.

Domestic students who choose to live in university accommodation would require only the most basic living quarters.

But universities would still provide more expensive accommodation for international students in order to remain competitive globally.

UK students would also look more to local institutions, with more emphasis placed on “quick turnaround” degrees lasting 18 months.

In a second scenario, the report suggests a return to economic growth and an increasingly collaborative society could create a thriving “knowledge economy”.

This would mean universities become an important place for students to develop into “innovative and collaborative graduates” – with an increased demand for higher education at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The importance of “collaboration” to the economy would create a need for university accommodation to provide plenty of communal spaces.

There would also be a greater emphasis on energy efficiency in accommodation design, according to the report.

A third scenario imagines a future of sustained economic stagnation and weakened business community - but a strong emphasis on communities and public services.

Here, university demand would fall sharply, with many more students choosing to study part time alongside employment.

The report’s authors suggest this would mean campuses becoming much less busy – with less demand for student accommodation.

Universities would instead invest into facilities for students to socialise and share their knowledge with other students.

The fourth scenario suggests a growing economy could be accompanied by greater competition in society – where higher education is central to a growth in business.

Here, students would see higher education as an important investment towards becoming “high-performers” of tomorrow, and would demand high standards of living from their institutions.

The report suggests universities and accommodation providers would need to work hard to ensure their accommodation package offers the best features and service possible to attract students.

The four scenarios are based on the University Alliance's Universities Vision research project, which identifies possible outcomes for the higher education sector in order to help universities' planning and development.

“Using scenario planning techniques helped us to explore different futures and have a more robust conversation within the sector, with government and with other interested parties,” said Professor Steve West, University Alliance Chair and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England.

"It has challenged the concept of what universities are for and the shape they will take in 20 years’ time, and stopped the sector from simply playing the same game we have been rehearsing for the past five years.”