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Flat out to provide room for all

Administrators say they can't get enough of it students say what there is, is too expensive. Barbara Miller on how colleges are meeting the need for more accommodation. When David Moxon was taken on as director of accommodation at Southampton Institute of Higher Education last year, he was given three years to provide 3,000 student bedrooms. Until then the institute had just 300 bedrooms on a campus 10 miles away from the main site.

"This was totally inadequate," says Mr Moxon. "We had tripled our student numbers over the past three years and have aspirations for university status by the end of the decade. Yet we were still relying on local landlords to provide accommodation".

Mr Moxon is now well on the way to achieving his target. But he is doing it without tying up large amounts of the institute's capital, through a link with a housing association which, he believes, is breaking new ground.

Servite Housing Association has raised Pounds 13 million to develop an 805-bedroom site for the institute in a prime location overlooking the Solent. Servite, set up in 1945 and with more than 5,000 properties, mainly in London, the Midlands, Merseyside and the south coast, will also provide management and maintenance for the site for 25 years, an offer which Mr Moxon found particularly attractive. "As a national housing association it is already geared up to providing this service for large numbers of people. We are not."

Servite will provide a 24-hour, seven days a week on-site manager, will arrange cleaning of the six bedroom "cluster" flats and communal areas, will undertake planned and ad hoc maintenance and will pay the utility bills. In return the institute will collect rents - around Pounds 45 per student per week - and pay them directly to Servite. It will also employ a liaison officer to deal with students' pastoral care.

The site - seven blocks of flats between five to eight storeys high - will be ready for occupation in September next year. Other facilities include a doctors' surgery, laundry and, probably, a range of shops. A large listed warehouse building in the centre of the site will provide car parking spaces.

Cash has been raised from the Allied Irish Bank. "The building and the rental stream from the institute provide the security," explains Servite's director of development, Alan Johnson. "We have been able to borrow the money without crucifying our asset base and the institute can concentrate on building teaching blocks and buying equipment, rather than spending its money on providing student accommodation."

Other colleges are similarly looking for new and inventive ways of dealing with accommodation crises. Blackburn College has bought an old people's home from the local authority and converted it into a 43-bedroom student hall of residence. "We paid for it ourselves," says college principal John Bolton. "It cost Pounds 250,000 and we spent a further Pounds 150,000 refurbishing it. This works out at about Pounds 10,000 per bedroom, which is about par for the course."

Blackburn College, an FE college which now offers 460 HE core places with five franchised degrees - including an MBA - is continuing to expand. "There is a growing demand for our HE courses from students outside our local area. They are looking for more facilities such as good quality, reasonably priced accommodation," says Mr Bolton. Next year the college intends to convert the rest of the former home's buildings to provide a further 20 bedrooms.

Barnsley College, too, has bought an ex-local authority residential home to convert into 60 student bedrooms at a cost of Pounds 4,500 per bedspace, says principal David Eade. "We do not have a great deal of money to spend on residential accommodation so this has been a useful exercise for us," he says. The college is also negotiating to develop an "eyesore" commercial warehouse property in the town centre - within three minutes walk of two of its main sites - into student flats above retail outlets.

Mr Eade believes colleges can benefit from working with housing associations. "I don't think we ought to be landlords ourselves. Entering into a long-term contractual arrangement with a housing association or other agency can prevent any confusion that may arise between students' accommodation needs and their education needs."

Peter Critchley, deputy director of Stoke-on-Trent College of FE and HE, says its growing HE programme is now attracting students from across the country. The college has employed an accommodation officer for the first time from February this year and is considering a range of options. "We could build our own halls of residence or lease suitable premises which we could convert, " says Mr Critchley. "There are also deals around where private landlords will put up the finance and sublet the development to colleges. Ideally, whatever we decide to do, we don't want to tie up huge sums of our own capital."

Blackpool and the Fylde College cashes in on the large numbers of guest houses and holiday flats in the town. "We have a 100-bed hall of residence and are hoping to build a 400-bed hall within the next couple of years," says accommodation officer Barbara Austin. "But, meanwhile, we can put up many of our 1,200 students in guest houses for Pounds 8 a day for bed, breakfast and evening meal or for Pounds 40 a week in a self-catering flat."

The Twickenham-based West London Institute of HE looked at providing accommodation via "the fag end" of Business Expansion Schemes before they were folded last year but decided the return was too low, says deputy registrar Mike Taylor. But he is not sure that a housing association can provide the type of accommodation he desperately seeks. "We want study bedrooms, they want to provide flats," he says. "The two are wholly incompatible." The college's bank would provide a loan to develop accommodation but this is not an ideal situation "as you have to keep mortgaging parts of your site".

Development is essential, however, if the college is to maintain its centre of excellence reputation for some of its courses and continue to attract students from outside the area, he says.

But not all students are looking for accommodation, according to Doug Wood, accommodation officer at the Liverpool Institute of HE. "In recent years we have been working on the basis that 63 per cent of first-year students ask for a place in hall and we have been able to provide that, by and large," he says. "But last year only 59 per cent of them made such a request. We now have to find out if this is a blip or a trend. If it is a trend we will certainly not be looking to expand our student accommodation."

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