This week, we interview Wouter Onclin, Foundation Manager at the Class of 2020, a European platform for student housing, ahead of their annual conference, taking place next month in Amsterdam.

Can you explain the theme and major topics of this year’s conference?

Theme of the conference is Rolling out the Red Carpet, which stands for strategies of cities, countries and universities competing for talent.

I gather the Class of 2020 has outgrown its previous venue? How many delegates are you expecting this time, and what is the profile of these?

Yes, we outgrew our home base of Casa400, which was a great location for our first four conferences as it is also a student residence. This year we are expecting about 450 attendees and have moved to the DeLaMar Theater in Central Amsterdam. Another reason for our new venue is an increasing demand from exhibitors, and we had no space to accommodate them in Casa400.

The Delegates are very international. From all over Europe, but we are also expecting some guests from overseas. We attract many investors, developers and operators of student accommodation, but we have also introduced a special rate for higher education professionals and public officials, which has increased participation in these communities.

What can we expect that might be a little different or new this year?

It has been a record-breaking year in student housing with more investments than ever. And this will also be reflected by our panels. We will have some very interesting speakers from all different backgrounds. For instance: Tom Ellet, Senior Associate Vice President, Student Affairs at NYU; Guillaume Pasquier, Director-General of the development corporation of Paris-Saclay University; Nikolaj Lubanski, Director of Talent at Copenhagen Capacity; Felix Hillen, Managing Director at The Student Hotel; Laura Howard, President at the EAIE, and many, many more.

We are keeping some of the things that we think work well: we’re not a big fan of long presentations, but rather focus on interactive panel discussions around our ‘Kitchen table’. We’ve also kept Rudy Stroink, who has been the moderator of the panels since the beginning of The Class, but we have paired him with Brikena Xhomaqi as a co-host. She is head of Institutional Relations at Uniplaces, and external valuator at the Erasmus+ Programme.

We have diversified the programme, with more expert sessions where our delegates can dive deep in the topics at hand.  The exhibition is bigger than previous years, with companies taking the opportunity to present themselves to our audience.

Are there any major issues facing the international student housing market in Europe (any specific markets or examples would be welcome)?

All over Europe, we are seeing that investment in student housing is taking off. Record numbers of investment are reported, especially in the UK and in Germany. The nature of the investments is becoming more diverse as well, with institutional investors like pension funds entering in the continental European market.

Issues facing the continental European market do remain. Fragmentation between countries, each with their own education traditions and accommodation regulations, remains a challenge. Regulatory issues, especially when it comes to building and rent regulations form barriers. Cultural differences, and an unfamiliarity of local governments with the product of student housing, forms another. But despite these challenges, we do see companies moving across borders more than in the past – The Student Hotel in Florence; Greystar in Amsterdam; International Campus in The Netherlands; Bouwfonds in four countries.

One of the biggest challenges in continental Europe is the limited involvement of universities in student accommodation. The Class has been working on creating more awareness of the importance of the student experience, especially for international students. This means the integration of academics and accommodation: universities cannot guarantee happy students when they ignore half of this equation. We are trying to give universities the tools that help them create partnerships with housing providers.

As Karin Helqvist of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden put it: “With a lot of hard work, each year we manage to put a roof over international students’ heads. But what we don’t know is how many students decide not to come to Gothenburg because it is so hard to find a place to live.”

Is demand from international students a key driver of growth in the student accommodation industry?

International students are an important driver of growth in the industry. But more importantly, they are a driver of change in the market, especially in continental Europe. Growing international student numbers are putting growing claims on the limited student housing stock in many student cities. They may be from countries where they expect the university to provide housing, and they may also expect a product that is better than what they get offered in their new country. This creates awareness that there is a need for better quality housing in many places. International students have a natural disadvantage when finding a place to live on the open market: they lack a local network, and need to book a place to live in advance. This has created new online marketplaces such as, Uniplaces and HousingAnywhere.

Are there any particular trends emerging in international student accommodation demands?

We see an increasing emphasis on spaces for socialising and communal learning. Study rooms, library rooms, but also game rooms and hotel-style lounges and gyms. Places that not only accommodate making new friends and creating new networks, but also places for group projects. Accommodation and education blend as more courses become available online, making the lounge and the bedroom double as a classroom.

The Class of 2020 conference takes place on November 3-4 in Amsterdam.


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