Centurion to Expand into the United States

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Centurion Corp, which develops and runs student accommodation, has revealed plans to expand into the United States.

The company plans to buy a portfolio of 1,936 beds across five student accommodation assets in four US States. The portfolio is expected to cost around USD 136 million, with Centurion owning a 30% stake and third-party investors owning the remaining portion.

Under the plans, Centurion will also set up an investment management platform to manage the portfolio of assets on behalf of investors.

Those properties in contention are in Auburn, Alabama; Tallahassee, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin, and College Station, Texas. The acquisition is expected to be finalised by the end of September.

Once the sale is completed, the five fully operational assets, will be earnings accretive, or add to the group's earnings from the fourth quarter of 2017.

To manage the student accommodation, Centurion will enter a joint venture with an accommodation manager to co-manage the assets with its own brand called Dwell Student Living.

Once the additional 1,936 beds from the US are added, Centurion will manage a total of 5,424 beds across 16 student accommodation assets in the US, UK, Australia and Singapore. Those properties it currently manages in the UK are located in Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

Commenting on the move into the States, chief executive Kong Chee Min, said: "The US is one of the key and established educational hubs in the world...and the proposed acquisition will immediately expand our business geographically and increase the earnings contribution from this resilient sector.

"It will also open a new business opportunity for Centurion, as we extend into the investment management of investments from like-minded investors."

Spoof Website Targets Newcastle University Students

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Newcastle University has warned students against handing out personal details on fraudulent websites after it was uncovered a fake site had been set up to take payments from prospective students.

Fraudsters were using Newcastle University's brand, and encouraging students to enter their credit card details to pay for non-existent courses.

The website claims to belong to Newcastle International University, which it says offers pioneering new approaches to education with 100% online study programs, allowing students to get a Newcastle University degree from the comfort of their own home.

Newcastle University warned people via its Twitter feed that it is "in no way associated with the university."

The institution said: "We have been made aware of an unofficial website that is fraudulently using the Newcastle University brand and accepting credit card payments to apply for courses. The website 'Newcastle International University' is in no way associated with the university and we are advising anyone who finds the website not to submit any personal details. All students should use our official website".

Security experts praised Newcastle University for their swift response, but suggested the scam could be effective.

Newcastle University subsequently reported the site to the internet hosting company and to the internet standards organisation, ICANN, as well as the police.

According to Universities UK, fraudulent websites have become less common following international crackdowns, but said it can still be difficult for international students to know whether a university advert or link is genuine.

Jo Johnson Proposes Student-university Contracts

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University Minister Jo Johnson, has indicated that students are to have formal contracts with universities so they can challenge them over too few teaching hours or if facilities on offer are inadequate.

According to Mr Johnson, there are growing concerns among students about receiving value for money.

Commenting on the proposals, the Russell Group of leading universities played down the concept and suggested it could have "unintended consequences" and that no one would want to see standards being undermined by the risk of legal action.

Labour suggested the idea of offering students a contract was simply a "smokescreen" to cover for the unpopular decision to allow universities to increase their fees.

Mr Johnson indicated the newly created Office for Students, would investigate how contracts for all students could be introduced, which will help to provide a way of contesting the quality of their courses.

It's thought the contract between students and their university would cover areas such as contact time, resources and assessments.

Commenting on the plans, Jo Johnson, said: "Although contracts do exist in various forms in some institutions, most of them do not provide enough detail to be useful."

He went on to add that, providing students with more contractual certainty would help towards addressing the issue of dissatisfaction over seemingly poor-value courses.

Finally, Mr Johnson noted: "When students and taxpayers invest so heavily in our higher education system, value for money should be guaranteed. Yet, I am still hearing students say that their course is poor quality.

"This is not good enough, especially when some vice-chancellors take home a wage that in some cases exceeds that of the prime minister."

Card Surcharges to be Banned

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One month after it was announced in the Queen's Speech that a ban on agent and letting fees will come into force, more misery is being piled onto letting agents with news that card surcharges charged to consumers will be banned in 2018.

Officially dubbed the second Payment Services Directive (PSDII), the legislation is being introduced to "create a more integrated and efficient European payments market, encourage innovation, and protect consumers by making payments safer and more secure."

According to Government sources, the blanket ban on card surcharges for all retail payments will be easier to enforce, rather than the current system whereby merchants are able to pass on costs, with the consumer having no way of assessing what these are.

Research carried out by the HM Treasury in 2011 highlighted the scale of these charges levied on consumers. In total the value of card payment surcharges for debit and credit cards in 2010 across the UK, was £473 million.

The new rules will come into force from 13th January 2018, but the Government has already recognised through its impact assessment that merchants would likely make up for lost revenues through a change in their pricing structure. In most instances, this could involve retailers increasing their headline prices, adding additional administration fees, or charging non-payment related fees. However, with the banning of letting fees also looming, the most likely scenario for the rental sector is that these costs are recovered through inflated rental prices.

The Government is currently analysing feedback from an eight-week consultation on the banning of letting fees, with responses being used to inform the draft bill.

Although the bill hasn't been published yet, the legislation looks likely to ban letting fees charged to tenants as a condition of their tenancy. It also appears the Government will enforce the ban with a provision for tenants to be able to recover unlawfully charged fees.

With tensions within letting agent circles already high following the announcement of a ban on agent fees, this latest news will add to concerns that many agents will need to fundamentally restructure their business model or face an uncertain future.

Amicus Provide Funding for Sheffield Development

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Short-term property lender Amicus, is to fund a 127-bed student accommodation development in Sheffield.

Amicus Property Finance has provided £5.5 million for Golden Sands Development's Riverside building, which is located to the north of the city centre.

It's understood the property has pre-sold more than half of the units and is expected to be completed towards the end of the year.

The site is situated within walking distance of the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University and has a 250-year long leasehold.

The Riverside scheme has an estimated gross development value of £8.5m, with a build cost of about £5m.

Commenting on the deal, Shoaib Bux, divisional director at Amicus Property Finance, said: "We're delighted to have provided funding to GSD Riverside.

"We were really impressed with the developer and their strong connections with overseas sales agents which meant the site had already secured 50 per cent of pre-sales.

"There is strong demand for this type of high spec student accommodation in Sheffield which is currently experiencing a boom in its student population."

Golden Sands Development went on to add that the funding will allow the company to move away from self-funding, which will enable them to quick expand their portfolio.

Durham Council Approves 850-bed Scheme

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Durham County Council have granted outline planning permission for an 850-bed student accommodation block situated on land north of Mount Oswald.

The purpose-built student accommodation will be developed by The Banks Group, with delivery expected in phases between late 2018 and 2020.

During the application process, locals raised several concerns.

One of the issues was whether the new PBSA was inconsistent with the 2014 Interim Policy on Student Accommodation, which maintains that "new student accommodation should not be built at the expense of general housing as the Council must address the need for new family and affordable housing."

In addition, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) also stressed the need to protect the Green Belt, while some questioned if the scheme would reach full occupation.

Marie-Louise Milliken, of The Banks Group, disputed this concern, saying: "There is a clear need for further student accommodation within the Durham City Centre and we consider Mount Oswald to be the most appropriate, logical and sustainable location for this."

Despite reservations from residents, Durham University also lent its support to the project. Jane Robinson, Chief Operating Officer of Durham University, said: "We need a world class estate in order to deliver our University Strategy, which includes proposals to increase our student population to a maximum of 21,500 by 2027 and house over 50% of our students in College accommodation."

Downing Fully Lets Student Development

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Strong demand for student accommodation in Coventry has resulted in one of the city's largest student housing developments being fully let before it opens in September.

Developer Downing has signed deals with the University of Warwick and Coventry University to take 457 student bedrooms at its City Village development in Belgrade Plaza.

An additional 140 bedrooms have been separately let as part of a mixed-use project.

The University of Warwick has taken the most rooms, snapping up 305 beds for its students, while Coventry University is taking the other 152.

The City Village development consists of a total of 597 bedrooms and at 20 storeys is one of the tallest buildings in the city.

The scheme also features 5,600 sq ft of ground floor retail and leisure space.

Commenting on the sites occupancy rate, Ann Lodge, joint chief executive at Downing, said: "With student accommodation at an absolute premium in Coventry, the city's leading universities have taken steps to ensure their students are in prime position to be able to benefit from the outstanding student accommodation that Downing is due to deliver in September.

"We are delighted to have signed these agreements and are looking forward to welcoming the city's students to this landmark development which will offer them high-quality accommodation in the heart of the city centre, within easy reach of key transport hubs, the universities, and the city's retail and leisure offering."

The Russel Group Urges for a Reassessment on Student Loan Interest Rates

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The Russell Group, which represents the UK's most prestigious universities, has urged the Government to reassess the interest rate it is charging on student loans.

Commenting via a blog, Dr Tim Bradshaw, Acting Director of the Russell Group, described the rate of 6.1% charged on loans coming into force this September as "out of touch with commercial lending rates, and very high compared with the rates at which Government can borrow."

Dr Tim Bradshaw outlined a series of measures for making the system fairer.

Alongside reassessing the interest rate of 6.1% charged on student loans from this September, it was suggested the £21,000 repayment threshold could also be reconsidered. Dr Bradshaw argued raising the repayment threshold in line with inflation would particularly benefit those students on low and middle incomes.

Another suggestion was to look at making repayments on outstanding loans through salary sacrifice arrangements, which would reduce the tax bill for individuals and allow new graduates to keep more of their earnings early on in their careers.

In response to the comments made by Dr Bradshaw, the universities minister Jo Johnson, defended the current system, arguing it has allowed more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university than ever before.

Dr Bradshaw recognised the current system had allowed more students than ever before to study at university and in particular it has encouraged students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but argued his proposed measures could make it fairer for students without undermining the sustainability balance.

Joint Venture Bags 354-bed Belfast Development

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Lacuna Developments and Watkin Jones Group have bought a 354-bed student development in Belfast from developer UniCiti.

Situated on 26-44 Little Patrick Street, the student development has been forwarded funded by an institutional investor and consists of 354 rooms. However, under newly submitted plans, the scheme is scheduled to increase to 430 beds.

The joint venture of Lacuna and Watkin Jones is also behind the newly opened John Bell House student development, at College Avenue, in Belfast city centre. They're also behind a 340-bed scheme at Queen Street.

Lacuna has also nearly finished building its student accommodation on Dublin Road.

The total value of all the schemes is estimated to be worth around £70 million.

Commenting on the Little Patrick Street scheme, Anthony Best, managing director of Lacuna Developments, said: "We look forward to delivering a fourth student accommodation scheme, and securing more than £100m of investment for the city.

"Through our experiences with John Bell House, Dublin Road and Athletic Stores we have built up our understanding of the student market and demand in Belfast.

"Our changes to the scheme will provide the right mix of studio and cluster bedrooms to meet demand from the market."

Under the revised plans, which are currently undergoing a 12-week consultation, the internal layout has been reconfigured to create a second outside space and an extra 76 beds.

Students Look to Take Legal Action over Poor Living Conditions

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Students are looking to take legal action against The London School of Economics (LSE) after doctors advised they should be re-housed to protect their health.

Postgraduates attending the LSE have complained that living conditions at Sidney Webb House are so bad they have caused their health to deteriorate.

Students have blamed headaches, coughing, breathing problems, eye infections and other ailments on their living conditions, with one GP advising his patient to seek a change of room.

Students have now launched a crowdfunding page to raise money to sue LSE for what they are describing is a "breach of tenancy contract".

In addition to delays in repairs, students cited disruptive construction work, which took place over seven-weeks and negatively impacted students ability to prepare for exams.

Students took to social media to vent their frustration, claiming construction work at Sidney House took place three weeks before LSE exams were due to start.

In response to the claims, a spokesman for LSE said of the accommodation: "It is to be refurbished over the summer. We are, however, aware of a number of complaints about accommodation there this academic year. We are investigating each issue."

The students aim to raise a total of £5,000 via their fundraising website by 5 August and have already managed to raise close to £2,000.