Taking a walk through Bristol you’d be lucky not to spot at least one construction site for what will soon become student digs.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the student population in the city never stops growing.
In fact, the number of students no longer seems to be on the rise. However, student housing continues its never ending expansion throughout the city – and it is that which is dividing local opinion.
For some, having students living in their neighbourhood “lights up the place”. For others, student housing is a “blight” on their community.
Explore our interactive map displaying the sizes of various student halls in Bristol:
Whilst 20 years ago the student population in Bristol was rapidly increasing, a little over five years ago it leveled out.
The number of undergraduate students at UWE and the University of Bristol (UoB) hit its peak in 2009, but whilst the number of students stopped increasing, the building of student accommodation didn’t.
A couple of decades ago student accommodation was provided almost entirely by halls run by the universities, and if you lived out of halls you were flat sharing in the private sector.
But now, following numerous years of universities struggling to fit students into their halls – even forcing some first years into temporary room shares – the business of accommodating students is shifting to large, nation-wide private companies.
And many of the new halls being built are in the city centre where derelict offices are being converted with the help of relaxed planning laws.
The Rackhay is one of the many student halls located in Bristol city centre. It is owned by Unite, but managed by the University of Bristol. Picture from Unite Students
An estimated one in five beds in Bristol student halls of residence are now owned by the private provider Unite Students, who have formed ties with both UoB and UWE.
Student halls can now be found almost everywhere in the city, from Frenchay to the city centre.
And a new trend has been emerging in which private companies appeal to customers by providing what is known as “luxury” student halls.
This means that many of them give each student their own studio flat containing wide screen televisions, ensuites and expensive furniture.
Collegiate, a provider in Bristol, even offers halls that have onsite cinema rooms and gyms – a long way off the poor heating and shared bathrooms of the archetype student flat.
Some private providers offer student halls with their own cinema rooms. Picture from Collegiate Accommodation
In return, the rents cost much more. For example, VITA Student, have rents as high as £220 per week- this is more than a student receiving the maximum loans and grants from the government can afford.
Pat Ellingham, a retiree who has lived in Bristol for over 30 years, expressed concerns over the way private companies have taken over the student housing market.
She explained how she has “noticed a lot of change over the years” and that this change has “dominated the old part of the city centre.”
She continued: “I understand people need places to live but I have a scepticism about making investments in that form of building, I think it’s quite expensive and I’m not sure it’s good for Bristol or for the students.”
It seems that private investors have started to see student accommodation as a lucrative business though, with reportedly over £5.8billion going towards the student housing market in the UK last year.
Darren Ellis, Higher Education Engagement Director at Unite, highlighted the benefits this can bring: “Good quality, well planned purpose built student accommodation also helps ease pressure on private rental housing in local areas.”
Bristol residents give their views on the expansion of student accommodation in the city:
Not everyone is feeling the benefit of this. Some Bristol residents have even described being turned away by landlords who now prefer student tenants to professionals.
Joroi Furnells, a 24-year-old waiter living in Filton, explained: “The landlord said he wanted to find young people, 18-year-olds, but obviously you don’t want to live with 18-year-olds.”
Some residents in Clifton already voiced their concerns about the expansion of student accommodation back in October when they submitted a paper to the Neighbourhood Partnership entitled “The Studentification of Clifton”.
The paper, which criticised the “aggressively expanding late-night economy” in the area, dramatically claimed that “Clifton faces a new kind of threat, from demographic shifts that are undermining the whole fabric of its community”.
The effects of the rise of student accommodation are not exclusive to these Clifton residents though, nor do they appear to hold the dominant view – many more Bristolians have expressed their delight with the number of students in their neighbourhoods.
Bertie Flahterty, a retired former construction worker living in Clifton, described how seeing Bristol students in his local pub lights up the place for him.
Caroline Court, head of student residential life at the University of Bristol, said: “There has been much work done over the last few years with regards to community liaison, and the recent creation of my post brings even more focus to student life as a priority for the University.”
She added that the growth in student beds in the city centre was influenced principally by availability of former office blocks and good transport links to both universities.
Mary Price, a spokeswoman for UWE, added that there are hugely positive effects a large student population can have, be it the boost to the local economy or the thousands of hours of volunteering UWE students do for the community.
UWE’s accommodation in Frenchay houses over 1,000 students. Picture from UWE
Like much of the country, Bristol is in a housing crisis with too few affordable homes available, and there appears to be a scepticism over whether the continual expansion of student accommodation is a positive thing.
Nick Ballard from tenents’ rights campaign group ACORN insisted that students are not the problem, and that they themselves are often the most exploited.
Instead, he argued that questions should be raised about the power and influence of the private providers, particularly with the “lack of consultation with existing communities about the location and extent of purpose-built developments”.
He argued that the effects of the expansion of student housing “should be seen within the wider context of the private rented sector – lack of supply, poor regulation and a drive for quick profits.”
“Bristol’s housing crisis is a product of national and local political will or the lack thereof. The sooner that all affected groups come together to realise their common interest, the sooner we will have a housing sector that meets the need of all.”
Given that the student numbers in Bristol have come to a standstill, it is tempting to think that the need for further student accommodation is dwindling, but this might not actually be the end of it.
After George Osbourne released the cap on the number of students a university can take last summer, it might be that the continuing construction of halls by private providers is savvy planning for future surges in student numbers.