GIC and Mapletree Investments are going back to school.
Singapore's sovereign wealth fund and the real estate investor helped fuel a record US$16.2 billion (S$22.6 billion) of student housing acquisitions this year, and a further US$3.3 billion of deals were struck in the first quarter of this year, according to Real Capital Analytics.
Student accommodation offers better returns than offices and residential housing, making it an attractive asset for pension and sovereign wealth funds looking for stable income and higher yields.
"Investments in student accommodation have shown higher yields than other real estate classes over recent years, while volatility was lower," said global head of investment management Struan Robertson of Global Student Accommodation Group. "Their performance is not correlated to other real estate investments. They're recession-proof and a great diversifier in any portfolio."
Asian investors are leading the charge, accounting for a record 21 per cent of student housing deals last year, up from just 1 per cent in 2015, data from Real Capital showed.
Singapore's sovereign wealth fund last month partnered with Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and real estate operator Scion Group to invest in a US$1.6 billion portfolio of student housing in the United States, adding to the US$1.3 billion acquisition of University House Communities Group last year.
GIC also partnered with Dubai- based GSA to invest in student accommodation in Germany and the United Kingdom last year.
"From a total portfolio perspective, student housing provides both defensive and diversification benefits from other traditional property sectors as it is less volatile and dependent on the economic cycle," said Mr Lee Kok Sun, chief investment officer of real estate at GIC. "Finding the right product and partner to invest with has been key to our approach but also the biggest challenge."
Mapletree Investments made its first foray into student accommodation in March last year when it acquired 25 properties in the United Kingdom.
It then added seven US properties in November, and is looking for more.
Mr Chua Tiow Chye, deputy group chief executive officer at Mapletree, said in an e-mailed response to questions: "Mapletree has set its sights on growing student accommodation across the world... Presently we have plans to acquire more quality student accommodation assets in other parts of the UK and the US, and will also explore opportunities in Australia and Europe."
Adding to the appeal, demand for student housing is outstripping supply as university enrolments rise, led by Chinese and Indian students going abroad to study.
Student accommodation has "proven to be relatively anti-cyclical in nature, with the pursuit of higher education growing worldwide, even during economic downturns," Mr Chua said.
Mapletree's Global Student Accommodation Private Trust, which last month raised US$535 million, has more than 14,000 beds across the UK and US.
Provision rates, calculated by dividing the number of registered students by the number of spaces in purpose-built student housing, range from 24 per cent in the UK to as little as 6 per cent in Australia and Spain, according to Savills.
High land costs in major university cities are a barrier to new developments, as is competing demand for land from residential and office developers.
"In the UK, US and Australia, we see a trend of low supply of purpose-built student accommodation," Mapletree's Mr Chua said. "This contributes to a growing demand for this asset class, and undergraduate enrolments in these countries are expected to continue to increase in coming years."