the class of 2020 - radar - interviews
April 20th, 2020

Monday update: The PBSA industry speculates on the new normal

Yoony Kim
Managing Director
The Class of 2020

With all eyes on September 2020, last week saw the industry begin to imagine a ‘new normal’: for the day to day now, for the upcoming academic year and beyond. Close collaboration and understanding of the current needs of students and residents have helped the industry begin to shape priorities in planning.

Sentiment: the industry, the students and the universities

The industry: This week we asked our PBSA partners about their international students. With the dust settling, how many students can we say have gone home? Operators report that many international students have departed, but significant numbers remain. Students cite different reasons for staying including enduring travel restrictions, a sense that their accommodation is “home,” and the Wi-Fi. The decisions of students regarding their accommodation have also differed across European cities, based on their countries of origin, the severity with which the local city has been impacted, and cultural expectations surrounding family obligation.

The students: Students seem to understand virtual learning is the only option at this moment, and many are adapting. Virtual campus activities and resident life engagement have been embraced as a temporary solution, but the higher education community does not think this will be accepted as a planned and permanent offering. And the difficulty in adapting to online learning persists, as many international students reported last week that their universities had not taken time differences into consideration when planning for virtual learning. While anxiety has always been a widespread concern for students, higher education professionals are reporting new sources of anxiety for students, such as future job prospects and family concerns.

The universities: While continental Europe has remained relatively stable, financial concern for universities in the US, UK and Southern Hemisphere has intensified. In the US and UK, financial projections indicate that some smaller and less well-funded universities may not make it out of this crisis. Australia and New Zealand, which have been hit by the pandemic at the start of their academic year, might even see no international students at all fly in. While European institutions remain hopeful about the start date of the next academic year to be relatively on time, the question of the manner in which it will start remains.

Preparing for next year

Flexibility: With uncertainty surrounding whether classes will be able to take place at all, whether students will show up (and if so, who) institutions in the US, UK and around the world have begun to prepare themselves and prospective students for the possibility that there may not be on-campus instruction in the fall. The big question for international students (and their parents) is whether they will remain interested in the study abroad experience at all when the experience that will be delivered could be partial and/or different from what they have originally searched for. Given this, adaptation to changing circumstances and flexibility in contracts for student accommodation will be essential. From remaining flexible about the amenities and features to pursue building flexibility into contracts, flexibility must be at the center of any approach to the next academic year. Some PBSA providers have already begun building this into their contracts for next year, with clauses stating explicitly that their contract only holds should the student be able to travel and to study.

Health & Safety: Regardless of the start date of the next academic year, we can prepare for the fact that health and safety will now be at the center of what students demand in accommodation offerings. One partner asked last week whether the “amenities race” accommodation providers had found themselves in before the crisis might now become a “health and safety race.” Indeed, shared rooms, communal spaces, roof terraces and pools suddenly look like significant risks, both to health and to business, should this crisis persist. New questions are emerging as to whether twin rooms and double occupancy might be better to convert to single occupancy and how shared facility design might be reconfigured with health at its center. Cleaning products and processes will become ever more important. The news that major US universities are beginning to order branded facemasks for their incoming students helps illustrate what the new normal might physically look like.

Accountability: The unfolding situation in the UK indicates that accountability and contractual agreements will take a new shape in the post-COVID era. The differing abilities of PBSA providers to respond to student demands for rent waivers has made clear the diversity of stakeholders involved in PBSA. Students are likely to more rigorously scrutinize their contracts when they are outside of university halls, meaning providers will need to spell out what students are signing up for and where their ability to respond might diverge from their will to respond given obligations to investors and other parties. Universities, too, may begin to ask tougher questions of PBSA providers about what they contractually agree to with students before recommending them.


In the past weeks, collaborative platforms such as ACUHO-I, CUBO, and our own have been key to facilitating the communication between stakeholders that is absolutely necessary to navigate the territory ahead. With the will to collaborate stronger than ever, the industry can expect thorough communication and thoughtful sharing of best practices in facing the new normal.