Reasons for optimism about student housing demand despite a fall in bookings during the lockdown

“Unilodgers is seeing some interesting student research patterns and booking behaviours during the COVID-19 lockdown”

“University leaders and housing operators and managers, both on- and off-campus, are now rightly focussed on today and making sure their students and staff are safe, but what does the future post-pandemic hold?” asks Vincenzo Raimo & JoAnn Orrell of Unilodgers.

There is already very significant speculation about falls in university enrolments in the UK, USA and elsewhere in 2020/21, not only from international students unable to complete prerequisite admission requirements in time for the start of the new academic year but also from potential domestic students delaying their studies rather than compromise their student experience.

Falls in university enrolments would obviously impact housing providers both short as well as potentially longer-term with smaller cohorts working their way through the system.

The evidence, however, suggests a more nuanced picture and reason to be more optimistic for student housing demand than some are perhaps suggesting.  First, the longer-term projections for growing worldwide demand for higher education and international mobility are unchanged.

Online learning will support that growth but will not replace it as students continue to demand face to face learning as well as other on-campus experiences. It has even been suggested that for many prospective students the lockdown at home with parents might even encourage more of them to study away from home.

And research being undertaken by QS during this period suggests that most would rather delay enrolling in a partial university experience in Autumn 2020 for the real thing in 2021 telling us that demand for on-campus university life is not disappearing anytime soon.

As a global housing hub helping students find the ideal accommodation for their studies in Europe, the USA and Australia, Unilodgers is seeing some interesting student research patterns and booking behaviours during the COVID-19 lockdown.

We know that housing is a major concern for students both before and during their time at university so their activity on the Unilodgers site may provide universities and housing operators alike with some insights as to what to expect in the year ahead.

  • Search demand for private student housing has continued to grow from most regions of the world and for all supply markets so far this year. Search volumes from China have been hardest hit but now seem to be slowly regaining traction;
  • Homegrown search levels for accommodation in both the UK and the USA are looking strong as are search levels from India;
  • Students are spending more than double the time on the Unilodgers platform compared to the same time last year. This might be a reflection of them having more time on their hands right now but it might also be an indication that they remain intent on going to university this year and will book once things become clearer;
  • There has been a very recent spike in searches and bookings from prospective MBA students from some countries but particularly marked for and from within the USA, perhaps proving the old adage of demand for a business education being counter-cyclical;

“Students are spending more than double the time on the Unilodgers platform compared to the same time last year”

  • While overall worldwide bookings in February and March are 20 per cent down on the same time last year, there are pockets of increased booking activity including from US domestic students some of whom are now having to find accommodation at their home institutions after plans for study abroad in 2020/21 have been cancelled. Some international students in the USA are also enquiring about the possibility of extending their accommodation contracts and or returning to the US to complete programmes suspended during lockdowns;
  • Existing UK and US-based students, especially in university cities where demand outpaces supply, continue to book accommodation for the 2020/21 academic year and where we are now seeing some properties soldout;
  • Over the past few days, we have started to see a more general if slow uptake in bookings following announcements by many UK accommodation suppliers of cancellation rights if social distancing and travel restrictions remain in place at the start of the new academic year. This is starting to give prospective students, parents and agents, especially those based overseas, confidence to book now rather than hold off and risk missing out later. Accommodation providers in the USA might want to take note of this strategy in the UK and the impact it seems to be having on bookings for next year.

Despite the challenges we all currently face in our day-to-day private and professional lives there are reasons to be optimistic about university enrolments and demand for student housing in 2020/21 and beyond.  We all need to be flexible and responsive to changes in national policies over the coming days and weeks and support our students in their journeys to university.

About the authors: Vincenzo Raimo is Chief Relationship Officer & JoAnn Orrell is Senior Vice President Partnerships at student housing hub, Unilodgers