Jenessa Williams explores the new city addition set to revolutionise student accommodation
Anyone who spends time in Leeds’ city centre will be familiar with the saga that is the changing face of Portland Crescent and Woodhouse Lane. With Hilton Hotel pulling out of a last-minute deal, the skyline in that area has stalled more times than Brexit over the past few years. But, finally, it has an owner in Vita student - a so-called revolution in student accommodation.
Launched in 2012, Vita is nothing like the dodgy, blue-carpeted halls you or I may have lived in while we were studying. With plush interiors, housekeeping service and a variety of membership exclusive offers, this is Generation Z living at its most luxurious. With an excess of 600 studio apartments in the works, the first Vita development opposite Belgrave Music Hall (St Albans Place) is nearing completion, with the Portland Crescent set to follow soon after.
I think the outside perception of our students is that they’re very mollycoddled
Leeds’ abundance of academic institutions makes it a sensible investment for Vita, which has proven successful in multiple cities in the UK. But, amidst a competitive career market and precipitous tuition fees, critics ask if the company is indeed offering value for money or merely another leg up for the already privileged.
We spoke with Dawn Williams, head of marketing at the brand, to find out what Vita is all about...
What can we expect from Leeds’ first Vita opening?
Dawn Williams: "Our first building in Leeds will be the St Albans Site, which will be opening in September 2019. We’re already 50% full. We thought it might be a challenge attracting students away from Headingley but we’ve been amazed at the popularity already. The other building will be opening right next to Beckett University and that will be opening September 2020. Usually two is our limit in a city: we don’t necessarily want to be the biggest, we just want to be the best, do the job right and make sure our students have the best possible experience. "
In terms of the benefits, what can students expect specifically in Leeds?
DW: "The main benefit from a Leeds point of view is the central locations. But in the wider sense, Vita is made to create a community. Our buildings are designed with a mixture of social spaces designed for work and play, in the hope that students have the opportunity to interact more with each other and also bring friends into the building. We do have some partners in the city that we’ll work with to take over some spaces in the bottom floors; forging connections with local providers, restaurants and cafes so that students get to experience Leeds and are driving business towards local organisations that are already in the city."
You’ve mentioned having business mentors and guest speakers in. How does that work?
DW: "‘Think big’ is our strap line, and we really want to give students the best platform for success. It’s up to students what they make out of university - we want to provide them with platforms to explore their interests and give them some springboards to think about their future. We recently had Brian Cox in, and we also had a guy from Virgin Galactic come in to our residence in Glasgow to talk about his career. It’s all about enabling them to have that close contact and experiences, not just with these celebrities but local start-ups too."
Is there a particular student demographic that signs up with Vita?
DW: "It is very varied – at the moment we have over 4,700 students living with us with about 2,000 different courses represented. But I’d say we do get a larger proportion of business, economics and science students. Currently in Leeds, we’ve had a lot of interest from domestic students - Headingley is incredibly overpopulated and there are lots of students wanting to be on the doorstep of the city centre and not have to worry about getting taxis home and things like that. Leeds is probably one of our most diverse mixes of students so far."
The university experience has changed a lot over the last few years, not least with the rise in tuition fees and a changing of government. How does Vita cater for the modern student?
Dw: "The increase in fees and the expectation of what you’re going to get out of the university experience is much higher now. Students' number one fear is ‘what am I going to do when I finish?’ But they also recognise that, while they’re there, they have to make the most of the experience and tailor it to their long-term goals. They also have to seriously consider what will happen if they don’t pass their first year, and be eyeing up job opportunities from the very first day they arrive."
The facilities sound great, but they are obviously outside of what might be considered a ‘normal’ student experience. How do you respond to criticisms that you might be failing to prepare students for the wider world, or indeed exacerbating a class divide that bubbles them from other less privileged students?
DW: "It’s a difficult one - I think the outside perception of our students is that they’re very mollycoddled, but the choice to go to university in the first place indicates that they’re looking for that sense of independence. We’re very popular with a whole range of students, right from first years who are maybe a little bit nervous and want that safety and security right through to PhD students who want the privacy to study. At first, they maybe do take advantage of breakfast every morning, but we’re not here to hand-hold them or offer pastoral care. It’s why flexibility is so important to us - we’re there if they need us, but we’re not a hotel concierge by any means. It’s just those little steps towards independence that we offer."
Down to the nitty gritty - what pricing can students expect? Do you feel Vita offers good value for money?
Dw: "Latest pricing is always on our website, and increase throughout the year as we sell. Currently prices are starting at £201 per week for our St Albans’s residence, which is decent pricing for the area; the standard of the rooms definitely isn’t what most people would be used to. We’ve introduced some changes to them this year especially for Leeds with lovely workspace, kitchen space and sleep space. That price includes all bills, breakfast, gym, PT sessions, yoga…a lot of our students actually find that they’re saving money. Our students don’t spend as much time in lectures as people think they do, and if they’re in our building everything is handy to them - fundamentally we’re all quite lazy so why not spend all of your time making use of the facilities?"
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