Preparation Notes

Unipol Student Homes

The UK Student Accommodation Forum, Thursday 20th August, 11 AM-12 PM

Theme: Preparation

Guest Speakers: Martin Blakey, CEO at Unipol Student Homes & Steven McCarthy, Operations Director at CRM


U-turn on A-levels

  • The impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak have created turbulent times for the student accommodation sector as a whole, with the effects reaching well into the next academic year.
  • Most providers are noting that bookings are slightly down on this time in previous years, as the usual wave of bookings post-A level results day has been somewhat delayed due to the fallout of results day.
  • Updated grades for students aren’t being released to Universities from UCAS until 21/9, so providers may experience the ‘wave’ of bookings in the coming weeks
  • There are approximately 40,000 new students in the system this year
  • There has been a noticeable increase in the number of students deferring until next year, in particular with institutions who’ve previously rescinded places based on algorithm derived A-level results.
  • It was noted that Universities that offered unconditional offers – although frowned upon – have fared better in the fallout than others.
  • As a result of the U-turn, concerns have been raised about a shortage of accommodation in some areas – Exeter, Manchester and Nottingham have all been flagged.
  • Some Providers had in fact experienced the traditional wave of bookings from results day onwards – but acknowledged there has been bee a change in the demand for bed spaces due to the confusion around A-level results
  • Students who had offers initially rescinded, and lost their accommodation through their University accommodation office, and have now had their offer reinstated, find themselves at the back of the metaphorical que for accommodation.
  • Allan Hilton (Cass and Claredale) noted that the undergraduate market in London is stronger than ever, but highlighted the difficulties within the postgraduate market, a large portion of which is made up of international students.
  • The PG market has stalled, and many of their postgrad bed spaces are being converted to UG spaces to meet demand. He also noted that proposed nominations agreements fell by the wayside.
  • The impacts of this year will push on into 2021 and the following academic year due to a range of factors e.g. January 2021 course start dates, deferrals, income streams over Summer period
  • There was no clear answer yet on the issue of PG accommodation for those starting in January, who may need tenancies from January-December. The September-December period will be particularly challenging.
  • CRM are offering 51 week tenancies from January to meet this demand, reaffirming the need for flexibility from Providers.
  • Caroline Persaud (Goodenough College) noted that actual acceptance of offers is down, and many students are requesting deferrals. She suspects many Universities will deprioritise PG accommodation in favour of UG’s, and the PBSA sector will then be able to meet this demand.
  • A problem was also highlighted around travel restrictions for Chinese students, with Visa Offices having only just resumed service, and this limiting the number of these students being able to attend for the upcoming academic year



  • Steven McCarthy began the section on Preparation, by talking about how the sector as a whole has become more flexible. He noted that CRM are offering flexible tenancy start dates, ensuring that they can offer students a range options. These have proved popular due to many semester/course start dates being delayed or amended.
  • Flexibility around cancellations has also been well received, with free cancellations being offered for a number of reasons e.g. students who may not get their visas approved, those who did not achieve their required grades, and those who cannot travel due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • WiFi capacity had been looked at across the portfolio, ensuring that the systems are equipped to cope with the large volume of online activity, so students learning experience isn’t compromised.
  • Each building has been risk assessed to ensure it is COVID-19 safe, with a number of different safety measures being implemented e.g. posters detailing information about social distancing, floor stickers to evidence one-way system, information on the maximum number of students per communal social space, bookable social & kitchen spaces.
  • Cluster kitchens are being targeted as the base of social activities, encouraging students to build friendship groups and relationships early on, supported by an extensive online welcome programme and welcome talks


  • Martin Blakey spoke about Unipols approach, and noted that Unipol are in a slightly different position as 50% of their tenants are returning students.
  • Unipol halved rent over the Summer due to implementing 72 hour fallow periods at the start of tenancies for cleaning, and this proved very popular with tenants.
  • 1400 Unipol tenants were moved in over the July period, with all but 5 students and their families observing the rules put in place around arrivals, key collections, and the move-in process. Booking move-in slots was received positively.
  • Unipol took the decision not to ban parents from helping with move-in, but gave advice for them to spend as little time in properties as possible, and to avoid eating/drinking when in the properties.
  • COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for Unipol’s relationships with local institutions, with some strengthening, but some weakening and leading to the unfortunate loss of co-operation from the Institution.


  • The important role of accommodation providers during the pandemic was acknowledged by both speakers, and that the sector had plenty to be proud of after some negative public attention in 2019.
  • Good housing management is about being present and being on the ground, and many accommodation providers never closed or stopped when many HEIs/Colleges did, and therefore became a huge source of support for many anxious students.
  • From a business continuity perspective, because most Providers carried on operating, the transition back to the ‘new normal’ will be easier.


  • An issue was brought up around monitoring students moving in to partially occupied properties, with regular checks needed to ensure properties are in good condition.
  • The topic of student behavior was touched upon, with MB stating Unipol’s position is to encourage personal responsibility, and not being too prescriptive in its approach. Punishment should be a second level approach, and not the first response to problems – SM noted that students cannot be treated like adults when it comes to signing a legal tenancy agreement for accommodation, but treated like children when it comes to their behaviour.
  • Unipol will not be implanting a ‘no visitor’ rule, BUT they will be stressing that student’s observe Government guidelines when socialising. Up to date Governement guidance on COVID-19 will be placed in student’s rooms/properties.
  • Although concerns have been raised by local community groups/residents about student’s returning, MB observed that students had obeyed self-isolation and other rules during lockdown, and had self-supported well.
  • Within the context of Leeds, MB noted that there had been a pro-active effort from the local authorities in policing anti-social behaviour concerns
  • It is important that Providers make an effort to engage with neighbouring properties/residents on their approach to being COVID-19 safe, and the measures taken regarding anti-social behaviour.
  • A point was made about ensuring health and safety information/COVID-19 guidance is marketed in neutral branding – research found that if hazard-style health and safety branding was used, this made students anxious and fearful.


  • Question: How are Providers are dealing with students who need to self-isolate on arrival?
  • SM explained how CRM have created a ‘quarantine care package’, which enables students to move into their room 2 weeks early rent free, so they can self-isolate before their courses begin. This package also includes airport pickup, food delivery service, rubbish removal, and regular online welfare calls with staff.
  • Question: In traditional Halls, how many students would you suggest can share a bathroom?
  • MB stated that if internal clustering takes place, sharing bathrooms is workable – they can be clearly signposted for certain rooms, supported by a ramped-up cleaning regime