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GSA Group opens 424-bed student housing in Dubai

GSA Group is to open its first purpose-built student accommodation building in Dubai next month.

The Dh110 million property, branded as Uninest, contains 424 beds as well as common areas including a pool, gym, terrace and cinema area. It has been built near Skycourt Towers in Dubailand, close to Dubai International Academic City (DIAC).

GSA Group’s chairman, Nicholas Porter, said the building would be the first of an investment of up to $200 million into the Dubai market and that it is searching for other sites, including one within Dubai Knowledge Village.

“That’s prime spot No 2 [after DIAC] in terms of investment. We also want to work with local partners,” he said.

Although purpose-built student property is relatively new to this region, it has grown into its own asset class in the UK, the US and other areas. Mr Porter played a major part in this, having founded the Unite Group in 1991. It is now the biggest student landlord in the UK, managing 456,000 beds in 138 properties and the £2 billion (Dh10.54bn) UK Student Accommodation Fund.

He stood down as chief executive from Unite in 2006 and sold off most of his shares before setting up GSA (Global Student Accommodation), which seeks to replicate the model developed in the UK on a worldwide scale, tailoring properties for each market. For example, in Tokyo last year it opened its first ­women-only dormitory.

At Uninest in Dubai, each floor has two separate wings, which means men and women can be segregated either by floors or even across floors, if required, to ensure supply matches demand.

“It is almost impossible to do that in a residential block,” said Mr Porter. GSA decided against creating female and male-only buildings, while the common areas are mixed. “That is ultimately part of a university experience. People want to be part of a community.” Mr Porter has been based in Dubai since 2008 and most of GSA’s corporate functions are carried out from an office in Al Barsha.

GSA has already bought properties in the UK and Australia, which are being redeveloped or refurbished, and is planning new buildings in Ireland and Germany, with a total pipeline of 25,000 beds. It will also manage a building opening in Beijing this year.

Mr Porter considers Dubai to be a major opportunity. He said that when Unite Group started in 1991 there were 68 million student places worldwide. Now, the figure is 196 million, and is expected to increase to 263 million by 2025.

Between 2002 and 2012, Dubai’s enrolled higher education student numbers rose by 8.5 per cent per year, higher than the global average of 5.3 per cent, and it has the biggest cluster of international branch campuses in the world, 26, making up 46 per cent of available places.

Matthew Green, UAE head of research at the property consultancy CBRE, said that Uninest has first-mover advantage in the market. “If they get the pricing right, there’s a good opportunity,” he said. “The only challenge is when you have a location like DIAC, it is not exactly central.”

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