Imperial College London’s property holdings are among the most extensive of London universities and include a significant amount of student accommodation. Through data obtained from freedom of information requests, as well as publicly available records and statements, Felix has found Imperial has large sums of money invested in property currently under construction, and has increased its property portfolio dramatically over the past year.
Imperial owns GradPad, two blocks of high-end accommodation for postgraduate students, with prices up to £430/week. The College has been accused by some postgraduates of aggressively marketing GradPad at the expense of alternative housing options accessible to all budgets.
Imperial has been rapidly expanding over the past few years, with a number of developments driven by the move to White City. Alongside the new educational buildings, such as the Molecular Sciences Research Hub, which will cost an estimated £154.4 million, Imperial has greatly increased its property investments. Last year it increased its holdings in investment property by more than £60 million, from £116.6 million to £179.1 million, largely through the acquisition of a large site in North Acton currently used by Dixon Carphone. Sales of investment property generated £6 million for the College last year, while income from rent from commercial property increased to nearly £10 million.
Overall, Imperial has increased the total fixed assets it owns – a category that includes freehold land and buildings, fittings, and equipment – from £1.37 billion to over £1.5 billion over the past academic year. This is one of the largest portfolios among London universities – equivalent to LSE, Queen Mary’s University of London, and St. Georges combined – and is greater than that owned by the University of Oxford.
Imperial also has a large number of properties currently under construction: at the end of the past academic year they had £327 million in properties currently under construction – the most out of any large London university, including UCL and King’s College London. UCL’s rapid expansion has come under fire recently, after academics backed a motion of no confidence in the university’s leadership. One of the UK’s leading judges said UCL management was “intent on driving through a programme of rapid expansion… exposing it to serious financial and academic risks”.
When asked how the College would ensure current levels of growth are sustainable, a spokesperson said: “We have a balanced and sustainable strategy for expansion. We are building a mixture of investment assets which will provide income in the future as well as academic facilities which will allow us to deliver our core mission.” Last year the College invested roughly £200 million in its estate, including projects in South Kensington and White City.
Imperial has also been rapidly expanding the amount of student accommodation it owns, increasing bedspaces by nearly a fifth over the past five years. The College owns more than 3,500 bedspaces – more than LSE and QMUL, but fewer than UCL or KCL. Space for undergraduate students, however, remains tight: in last year’s annual report, the College reported its growth in enrolments was “weighted towards postgraduates to avoid putting strain on our commitment to provide all first-year undergraduates with a room in halls”.
While the College promises to provide all first-year undergraduates with accommodation, its current holdings do not allow it to do so: this academic year, Imperial accepted 2,715 students, but currently only owns 2,484 bedspaces, not including those in GradPad. As a result, Imperial offers students spaces at halls which are not owned and/or operated by the College, such as Xenia, which provides space for nearly 150 students and is operated by the Salvation Army Housing Association (SAHA).
“Imperial has increased rent over the last few years, with the average now standing at £175/week”
One way Imperial will be trying to make up the shortfall is with new accommodation outside of central London. In 2015 it opened Woodward Buildings, a 19-storey building in North Acton with space for 690 students. Last year it acquired another plot of land in Acton, which will be used to expand the student accommodation on offer to around 1,300 bedspaces. The College says this will be done to ensure it has “the critical mass needed to develop a vibrant student hub”. The new hall will form part of the undergraduate first year guarantee portfolio.
It is unclear whether or not the accommodation to be constructed will be as affordable as that on offer at Woodward Buildings, which is currently subsidised compared to similar accommodation nearby. The accommodation available at Woodward is significantly cheaper than rooms available closer to the South Kensington campus: an en-suite room at Woodward Buildings costs £131 per week, compared to £232 for a room in Eastside Halls.
Construction of Woodward Buildings has allowed Imperial to keep its average rent increase year-on-year to around 2.5%, slightly above the average inflation rate for the period: in 2012, the average room in Imperial-owned undergraduate accommodation was £155/week, compared to around £175/week this year.
The year Woodward Buildings opened saw a sharp increase in rent for central student accommodation, following lobbying by Imperial College Union (ICU) to restructure pricing of halls. Between September 2014 and September 2015, the average rent in central London halls owned by Imperial – including Eastside, Southside, Wilson House, and Pembridge – increased by nearly £30, from £166/week to £193/week. At the time, Tom Wheeler, then Union President, said: “It is fantastic that as a result of our lobbying we have secured lower rent for over 1,000 future students.” According to data provided by the College, if all College-owned bedspaces were rented out, it would generate a rental income of £720,000 each week – more than any other London university bar KCL, which owns around 40% more bedspaces than Imperial.
“Woodward still has not had its unsafe cladding, which was discovered in August, replaced”
In a statement for Felix, a College representative said Imperial did not profit from student rents: “The College’s approach to pricing is to ensure rental income covers the college’s maintenance, capital and running costs for accommodation, but does not generate a surplus from student rents. Student rents are set every five years and the College will consult with the Union in the same way when it comes to setting rents for the next five year period.”
At the beginning of this academic year, it was revealed Woodward Buildings had failed fire safety tests carried out on its cladding in the wake of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. While having sections of cladding that failed government-ordered tests, Woodward Buildings were confirmed “safe for occupancy” by fire safety teams. A review of the rest of Imperial’s halls found none used unsafe cladding. Woodward Buildings is still awaiting new cladding.
Imperial and GradPad
Postgraduate accommodation has also been an area in which Imperial has realised a profit over the past few years. Imperial owns accommodation for over 1,000 postgraduate students across two blocks marketed under the brand “GradPad”, which describes itself as “London’s premier provider of postgraduate student accommodation”.
The two complexes – Griffon Studios in Battersea, and Wood Lane Studios on the North Site of Imperial’s White City campus – are owned by Imperial, but operated by UPP, which manages over 32,000 rooms in the UK. Prices at GradPad start at £219/week, but go up to £430/week; all contracts are for 51 weeks. If all rooms available in GradPad were rented out this academic year, it would produce nearly £300,000 in rental income each week – over 40% of all potential income from student rents.
The most expensive rooms at GradPad, which can be found in the Wood Lane complex, are among the most expensive of all university-owned accommodation – 50% more expensive than UCL’s most expensive offering.
Felix spoke to one postgraduate student, who lived in GradPad’s Battersea property last academic year, who said they had “a good experience overall”. They highlighted features like the gym, the convenience, and “the desk staff were really nice and helpful”.
However, they also pointed out: “One thing that annoyed me the most was there’s no oven in the accommodation. You have hob space, but it gets to a point where you’re like ‘oh god, why do I not have an oven?’ That was really frustrating.” Having individual kitchens meant “it was quite an antisocial environment”, with “no encouragement of social interaction”.
They highlighted how much Imperial had promoted GradPad before they started their course: “I think Imperial is very pro-pushing people to use GradPad. If you go onto the website there’s no advice for PG accommodation, or find-a-friend website; you have to show your own initiative to not end up going there. I had GradPad pushed on me”.
They also said they felt international students were more likely to feel compelled to use GradPad: “A lot of people who stay there are international, and I think they get screwed over. The way [Imperial] targets it is very much ‘this is the simplest solution, you won’t have to worry about it’, and I think that appeals to people who are travelling overseas, who can’t see the properties.”
These concerns were echoed by a number of postgraduate students Felix spoke to. One student approaching the end of their PhD at Imperial after moving from UCL said it wasn’t an isolated problem: “Neither UCL nor Imperial were any help finding accommodation, at least not in a proactive way. I tried looking at the Imperial accredited private accommodation page, but the options were scarce and expensive.”
Another student, who completed their PhD at the end of the past academic year, told Felix that while GradPad had “very nice facilities” and “was worth it if you could afford it”, it was not an option for those on the minimum stipend.
“Imperial has been accused of aggressively marketing GradPad, its luxury PG studios”
“They market it at everyone, including those who may not realise they can’t afford it, and they don’t give any alternatives for people who have to look elsewhere. Some make the assumption they can afford it, because you should be able to afford what Imperial recommends, even if you’re on the minimum stipend.
“While I don’t have any problems with GradPad itself – I don’t think it’s unfairly priced considering the benefits, and compared to similar halls aimed at young professionals – I take issue with the fact there’s no alternative or support for most students who will not be able to afford it. Imperial should do more to ensure the marketing that gets to students provides options for students of all background to allow them to live comfortably and safely, instead of just passing on information relevant to the wealthiest subset and leaving the rest to figure it out.”
The only option for postgraduate students Imperial currently lists on its accommodation webpage for those outside Silwood Park is GradPad. While it does have a private accommodation guide, and puts on events aimed at helping people find private accommodation, there is no information specific to postgraduate students.
In a statement, a College spokesperson said: “All students have access to Imperial Home Solutions, an online website managed by the Student Hub promoting private landlords as well as other purpose built student halls. We do send information on GradPad to students when they accept their place as it can be a more convenient option for overseas postgraduate students as it can be organised before they arrive in the UK - but postgraduate students are informed via the website about the options in the private rental sector as well.”
As well as GradPad, Imperial previously had holdings in other postgraduate accommodation. Last year it sold a block of postgraduate accommodation to another provider, which has since marketed it to undergraduates; having acquired the property in 2012, Imperial made a total profit of £9.2 million.