We spoke to Ian Jones, Head of Accommodation Services at the University of Sheffield, to hear his insights into student living and experience.
What does your role as Head of Accommodation Services involve?
It’s mainly about enabling others to do their jobs in directly looking after our students and other customers. Other than occasional “back to the floor” sessions, it’s been a long time since I was regularly working face to face with students – something that I miss tremendously and occasionally worrying that I can’t keep in touch with what they want. Fortunately, our Residence Life and Marketing teams provide great feedback and I can rely on the team to keep doing things right.
I spend (too) much of my life in meetings, thinking about resources – human, financial and physical, or considering the longer term strategic aims of the business that accommodation provision has become. There’s also an emphasis on communication, ensuring that everybody knows what we’re doing and why and, hopefully, giving them the opportunity to talk back.
What makes the accommodation and living experience at the University of Sheffield unique?
I think our strength lies in our teamwork and partnership approach. We went through a major redevelopment of our main residential sites between 2005 and 2010 followed by an ongoing programme of refurbishment of our older building, and are lucky to have a great range of quality accommodation with good diversity. This means we can offer rooms from £80 per week to studios at £150 plus a range of family and couples accommodation either in the city or our leafy suburbs.
What makes us really stand out according to the feedback we get from students is our Residence Life offer. We were one of the first Universities to really commit to developing this in line with some of the best practice internationally, and our partnerships with the Students’ Union, Sport Sheffield and Student Services give us a fabulous range of services, activities , events and development opportunities. This has significantly increased satisfaction and net promoter scores over recent years and it’s especially pleasing that this has been seen from our international residents as much as our home students. We’re very proud to have been part of our #WeAreInternational campaign from the very start.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge in terms of managing student residences?
For me, it’s the constant trade-off between services, quality and cost. Expectations increase all the time – from our residents and from the wider University community – and we need to continue to improve while minimising rent increases. Commercial activities support this enormously of course, and we have a very successful Commercial Services section and a subsidiary company that do a brilliant job. However, it’s often still down to supporting our staff to do more with the same or less money, asking them to work a little harder and smarter, smile a little more and deliver an ever better student experience.
People expect student behaviour to be a big problem, but generally it isn’t; we rarely have significant issues despite a number of minor ones that Res Life deal with. More demanding is the increasing support requirement around mental health and students who may ask for additional help. We have to keep helping our staff to manage their workloads and ensure they have the skills and their own support systems in place to deal with this.
Are there any UK-wide student accommodation trends that the industry as a whole is focusing on? How do you think student residences will evolve over the next decade?
There seems to be focus on building studios that is a real concern for us in Sheffield, and colleagues around the country echo this. There is undoubtedly a niche market for higher end accommodation and some of the providers do an excellent job in delivering schemes with superb social space and genuine sense of community, but this isn’t always the case. We’re also reaching a point where there is simply more studio accommodation than is needed and a worry that this is potentially going to lead to voids, price based competition and falling standards.
While I’m unconvinced that there is an overwhelming demand for “affordable” accommodation, there is certainly demand for diversity and the sector needs to be considering other approaches. A sector wide discussion about what affordable means and how Universities, the private sector and other stakeholders approach this, is overdue.
As for the next ten years, I think we’ll see continuing development of new purpose-built student accommodation but with increasing emphasis on the provision of social space. Universities and private providers who were early in to provision of en suite clusters will be looking at how they might adapt their schemes to provide this and remain competitive.
I also think that a generation growing up with a belief that you don’t have to own your music, stay in a hotel when you can go Airbnb, or call a cab when you can order an Uber from your phone, and see studying as a social activity (even if they do have headphones in) are going to have some interesting ideas about styles of living – that’s going to be one to watch.