Designer digs for students
Cinema rooms, gyms and stylish interiors. Some undergrads really have come in from the cold, says Christopher Middleton
It’s not so long ago that the phrase “student digs” conjured up images of squalor. What, people argued, was the point of giving 19-year-olds somewhere nice to live, if all they were going to do was hammer nails into the plasterwork, and use bits of grubby carpet to hide the scorch marks on the floor?
But student housing has changed beyond recognition. Today’s university accommodation has become altogether more top drawer than bottom of the pile.
Much of this is due to the fact that today’s student digs are not run by busy bursars with better things to do but are nowadays built and run by professional property companies, and financed by investors who get a return of up to 7 per cent for their cash.
This week, the developer Criterion Capital launched a new, luxury student block considered to be among the most expensive in the world. Almost immediately one of the lavish apartments in Fountain House on London’s Park Lane was snapped up by a 17-year-old boy for £21,000 a month. The posh digs, with a 24-hour concierge service, and kitchens fitted with Miele appliances, have been marketed exclusively to undergraduates by the Mayfair estate agent Peter Wetherell, in a play to attract wealthy overseas parents who want their children to study in Britain.
New figures from the Government’s Higher Education Statistics Agency show that there are some 107,000 overseas students studying in London: 40,000 of them from continental Europe and 67,000 from the rest of the world.
“These students [from the Middle East, Far East, North America and Europe] can afford to pay £2,000 a week at least on rent,” says Wetherell.
Fountain House, a nine-floor building with views over Hyde Park, is at the very top end of student accommodation and, of course, nonstudents can also rent an apartment there (should they dare).
But even accommodation deemed more affordable and outside the capital is beyond stylish.
Step inside the new, 10-storey Vita Student building in central Manchester and you’ll be greeted by building manager Claire Sherlock, whose background is in retail and customer service.
Rather than viewing each student through a filter of suspicion, she greets them all by name. Instead of regarding them as potential Blu-tac bandits and room-wreckers, the policy here is to treat them as paying customers.
Students living in this elegant high rise, right in the centre of the city, rent their rooms for 51 weeks of the year, as a hedge against rent rises.
And they don’t pay peanuts. A single room here costs anything from £725 to £1,000 per month, which means that far from being issued with a battered microwave and a limited supply of hot water they get a lot more for their money than their predecessors did.
Walk in the front door at Vita, and you could be in a smart block of private apartments. The floor is parquet, and there are lots of comfortable chairs and sofas. Each morning from 7am to 10am a large, free breakfast is laid out on the central counter. There are study rooms that tenants can book, laundry rooms, a gym, and TV lounges for watching anything from football to films.
And that’s before you’ve even set foot in your room. Here you have not just the standard desk, bed and bathroom set-up, but a TV, Wi-Fi, your own fridge, kettle and cutlery, and a daily cleaner whose efforts you are invited to judge, in the form of marks out of 10.
There are also movie nights, pool tournaments and karaoke contests.
The company that provides this accommodation, Select Property Group (which has offices in the UK, Canada, Pakistan and United Arab Emirates), runs similar operations in other British student cities: Liverpool, Exeter, Sheffield, Southampton, and Bristol, with York and Glasgow to come.
Instead of arriving in Manchester and trying to find a bedsit through an ad in the Manchester Evening News, science student Amit Varu, from Barbados, has opted to live in the Vita building. And he hasn’t regretted it. “I chose this place because I wanted to have my own kitchen,” he says. “At the same time, living here has meant I have been able to make lots of friends.”
But forget the niceties, it’s big business. This year alone, some £4.2 billion has been invested in new student accommodation.
Campbell Property is another developer delivering accommodation for students. But rather than the modern look of the Vita block, Campbell renovates old buildings such as the Hosiery Factory in Leicester, a red-brick Victorian industrial site that once mass produced tights. “The thing is I only wish I was still living somewhere that nice now that I have graduated,” says Michael, a former resident of a Campbell building in Exeter.
The Hosiery in Leicester, above and right; one of the living rooms in Fountain House, left, yours for £9,000 per month