• James Wyllie

What the top 50 universities are planning for academic year 2020/21

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

UK university courtyard
UK universities are the envy of the world. What is there plans for 2020/21?

Three weeks ago I wrote about whether purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) was still a good investment in 2020 (you can read it here). I sighted the impact of COVID-19 and the uncertainty that it was creating for the coming academic year. Landlords had, at the time already had to give a reported £773m in refunds to students who were sent home, and there seemed to be no guarantees that it would be different in 2020/21. And then shortly following my blog, the University of Cambridge added rocket fuel to the uncertainty by reportedly only teaching online for the coming academic year.

The knock on effect has been notable, especially when it comes to PBSA. A number of lenders are understandably hesitant to commit funds to new schemes, especially when the UK’s top university is apparently shutting it‘s doors. It is also quite understandable that lenders would not have the time to research what each university is planning to do, in helping to decide whether to back various development schemes. So I thought I would look into it (well, for the top 50 universities). My findings were quite surprising.

What the top 50 universities are planning for 2020/21

When I started gathering the information together I was expecting to find a variety of responses from universities that would require categorising. I thought that there was probably going to be a sliding scale of planned action from those that were open as usual (or very close to it), through to those that had their doors closed to students and were conducting all lessons online, much like the reported stance from the University of Cambridge.

It was my plan to provide the universities statement (or summary at least) and then provide the link for each university. To my surprise as I started making my way down the list, there was in fact one common plan for EVERY university. It is as follows:

  • To open their doors to students in time for the start of the academic year, at the end of September or beginning of October

  • There will be an on campus learning experience for all students, in smaller class sizes where social distancing can be achieved.

  • Lectures held in big halls with large numbers of students will be replaced by online learning until guidance from Public Health England allows such teaching to take place safely.

  • The common term from most universities is that they are adopting a 'blended' approach to learning with a mix of on-campus and online learning.

But what about the University of Cambridge I hear you say? With headlines in the media like this: Cambridge University: All lectures to be online-only until summer of 2021 (this one is from the BBC) how can every university have the same plan? Well, here is the statement from the Senior Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Cambridge:

“The University and the Colleges will welcome as many students as possible to Cambridge for the start of the next academic year, guided always by advice from Public Health England. We are committed to continuing to deliver high quality education to all our students and to delivering a rich student experience, while ensuring that we respond effectively to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic...There remains a great deal of uncertainty about the likely course of the pandemic and its impact on universities. I regret that partial reporting of only one aspect of our plans may have compounded this uncertainty. We will keep our plans under regular review. Our objective is to restore the full teaching programme as soon as possible. If we are able to do this sooner than currently anticipated, we will.”

Quite a difference to the BBC headline. At the bottom of this blog I have provided the link to each universities COVID-19 plan. Of course, everything remains under review, but at present every one of the top 50 universities is expecting its students to return for the start of academic year.

Will international students be coming to study?

PBSA is a popular choice amongst international students, with operators often relying heavily on their custom. 485,645 international students studied in the UK in the last academic year, representing 24% of the total number of students. For context, 120,385 were from China, dwarfing the second and third biggest providers of students, India with 26,685 and the United States with 20,120 respectively. If students cannot attend the next academic year, regardless of the universities plans, there will be a significant financial impact on revenues.

Despite the operational challenges of processing visa's during the pandemic, the government has continued to process applications for the coming academic year as normal. Steps have been taken to try and smooth the process for applicants, for example with universities being able to self-assess English language competence (a requirement of a tier 4 visa). It is also worth pointing out that this coming academic year sees the introduction of the government's plan to bring back the two year post-study work visa for international students enrolling in 2020.

Universities have also continued to accept applications as normal (as you would expect). In essence from a UK point of view it is business as usual, with added incentives being offered from this year. It therefore becomes a question of whether students can get to the UK due to travel restrictions and whether they want to come to the UK to study. Studies carried out so far, as to whether students will accept places, have offered conflicting results, and this is probably the greatest unknown for developers, investors and lenders. However, as I have written before, the strength of PBSA, as an investment has been largely based on the international reputation of the UK higher education sector, and that wont change as a result of COVID-19.

So where does this leave us?

I was genuinely surprised by the findings. Montpelier Private Finance has an established track record of sourcing funding for PBSA schemes, and it is a sector that I keep very close to. Yet, perhaps guided by some of the sensational headlines in the media, I did not expect to find that every university was planning to open its doors to students and provide an on-campus learning experience, and especially that of the University of Cambridge!

Of course there is a degree of uncertainty at the moment, but that is true for all property development. Lenders current offerings, although changing by the day, reflect the current market and economic uncertainty that COVID-19 has created. I would argue that future PBSA schemes should continue to be judged on the individual merits of the particular scheme and not discounted because of media headlines.

The top 50 universities plans for 2020/21

For ease of reference universities are listed in alphabetical order:

University of Aberdeen


Aberystwyth University


University of St Andrews


Aston University


University of Bath


Arts University Bournemouth


University of Birmingham


University of Bristol


University of Cambridge


Cardiff University


Coventry University


University of Dundee


Durham University


University of East Anglia


University of Edinburgh


University of Essex


University of Exeter


University of Glasgow


Heriot-Watt University


Keele University


Imperial College London


University of Kent


University of Lincoln


Kings College London


Lancaster University


University of Liverpool


Newcastle University


University of Leeds


University of Leicester


London School Of Economics


Loughborough University


University of Manchester


University of Nottingham


Nottingham Trent University


University of Oxford


Queen Mary, University of London


Queens University Belfast


University of Reading


Royal Holloway, University of London


University of Sheffield


Sheffield Hallam University


SOAS University of London


University of Southampton


University of Strathclyde


University of Sussex


Swansea University


University of Surrey


University College London


University of Warwick


University of York


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