As students, many of us know what it is like to live in university accommodation. It’s where you meet people from different courses, from all across the world. Some of them will become life-long friends, others not so much. This is one of the best things about living in university accommodation. For some, university offers a person’s first sense of independence and privacy, especially students from poorer backgrounds who may come from smaller households.
Yet for many, the choice of accommodation has become a slippery one. University accommodation rates are increasing every year, leaving many of the poorest students with less money to spend as they are forced to use large percentages of their grants and loans on housing. Sometimes all of it for catered students. Even now, the maintenance grants, which so many people relied on, are being scrapped and replaced by full loans, which means even more debt.
Since the election of the coalition government in 2010, education has become a target for government cuts. Despite Lib Dem election promises, the cap on tuition fees was tripled to £9,000 a year; 50,000 students took to the streets to voice their anger at this decision. However, a more insidious attack on student living standards has come through the spiralling cost of university accommodation. Lacking sufficient funding, universities have ramped up the cost of student housing. In addition to this, a lot of accommodation is sold out during the holidays for conferences and overnight meetings (typical contracts at Leicester University are for 39 weeks of the year). This means students have to move in-and-out of accommodation every holiday. For people not from the area, especially international students, this can incur significant travel costs.
Student services have begun popping up in aid of students who have to move out but find it difficult to move all their stuff. Some universities, like the University of Leicester, provide storage for international students. However, these student services, which claim to benefit students, are only draining more cash out of their pockets. The cost of storage is extortionate to say the least.
There are also student-led bodies which act as council for student accommodation issues, often raising financial issues in an official capacity. However, the role played by these groups in fighting back against the student housing crisis has, so far, been negligible.
This doesn’t mean students haven’t found other ways of expressing their dissatisfaction. Last year, Durham University protested against what it saw as unfair hiking up of accommodation prices – with average prices being around £7,050, up to around £7,350 for en-suite rooms, and increasing more every year. Durham itself has one of the lowest private rent rates for housing in the country, yet still students are ripped off. Students at the university from across the campuses, including those in campaigning societies like Durham Left Activists or the DLA (formerly Trevelyan Left Society), held a funeral for education, inspired by similar events at other universities. The demonstration had around 300 attendees and was covered by various news sources.
One of the other major universities spearheading the fight for fairer accommodation prices was University College London with their Cut the Rent initiative, which proudly sponsored Durham’s campaign against university prices. The UCL Cut the Rent initiative came as a response to increasing accommodation fees. Since 2009, accommodation fees have risen up by 30%, around 4% each year, which is more than double the average rate of inflation in Britain (around 1.9%). Pricewise, standard non-en suite rooms are around £6,500, and en-suite rooms reach as high as £8,000, which is a thousand pounds beyond what the lowest earners are even capable of paying.
The UCL Cut the Rent initiative is not just focused on student accommodation, but also aims to bring awareness of the growing rates for rented accommodation in London in recent years. The National Union of Students have been working closely with UCL Cut the Rent and UCL students and have themselves voiced their objection to the apparent “cost of living crisis” among students at university, especially in London.
Universities must begin to make a conscious effort to tackle rising accommodation prices. One such way is by preventing the selling-off of accommodation to private companies, who sell these rooms for profit and only help drive the prices up even further. Furthermore, there must be greater transparency as to how accommodation fees are being spent by the university – do they go back to maintenance? Or is it being given to investors, who have a free will to use that money how they please?
It is also easy to argue in this case – “well, how will the universities afford to be able to do this?” – which is exactly why we need to fight against austerity measures which seek to take more and more money away from the education sector. We need to refocus our economic planning so that the super-rich pay their fairer share of tax, but also to ensure that everyone has enough money to live on. We can go even further than this by putting forward a socialist alternative to highlight that these issues are solvable.
By Dan E. Smith
Over the last three months Leicester Socialist Students have been campaigning around the extortionate cost of student accommodation. We have now collected over 500 signatures, calling for transparency in how the money is spent, which will be presented to the Vice Chancellor Paul Boyle in the coming weeks.