Is this the beginning of the end for student accommodation?

concrete building under blue sky

Student accommodation has been a hot topic of discussion within University’s and Student Union’s across the UK for its rising costs, its (supposed) added value to student experience and it’s quality (or not so much) of living. Since the pandemic and the swirling headlines around student’s being locked up in their halls of residence like prisoners, is now the beginning of the end of student accommodation?

Moving away from home for the first time, having a new found sense of freedom, all whilst trying to figure out who you are is a chapter millions of students launch themselves into every September. The prospect of fleeing the nest and the comforts of living at home is sold as being worth the thousands of pounds it costs on top of your tuition fees, whilst opening up the opportunity to join a sports team or society and throw yourself into a new social life. 

But this year it’s different. The freedom to meet anyone and to simply walk around your halls of residence isn’t possible without risk of expulsion in some cases for breaking the rules of the University. Despite this year being different on the surface, the underlying problems with Halls of Residence still continues to manifest like they have for many years. 

According to the Save the Student National Student Accommodation Survey 2019, where 2,000 students were surveyed, the average cost of accommodation for a student is £541 a month. And you guessed it, first year students pay higher rents. In 2019, 1 in 2 students (50%) say they struggle to pay rent, whilst two thirds of students (63%) say the cost of accommodation negatively affects their mental health. Now put that in the height of a pandemic, and what do you get? Daylight robbery some might say.

Living in halls is often marketed as the hub for student interaction, and the catalyst for making the most of your student experience. “You’re a 10 minute walk from your lecture” or “you can get involved with so many sports and societies” are common notions to enticing students to live in accommodation, but all of that has for now, vanished into thin air. The loss of these actualities because of the pandemic has revealed the distinct lack of what University accommodation has to offer. Aside from the barely existent government advice and being in a flat with a bunch of people you met only a few weeks ago, the truth of the matter is the promises that University’s would usually make in their glowing prospectuses were believable when COVID-19 was a distant nightmare.

I’ve had friends at Russell Group Universities paying a ridiculous amount to live in plush halls of residence which were essentially top of the range studio apartments, whilst I’ve also seen other University halls falling apart at the seams with windows that don’t open and sinks falling off of walls. Can the latter honestly be justified in normal circumstances, let alone a pandemic?

Students across the UK are now being taught online, whilst cooped up in a small room, with no access to a gym or exercise, because of local lockdowns or restrictions placed upon them by their University. What was meant to be, has not become. The promise of “this will pass” and “things will get better” isn’t enough when student wellbeing and money is at stake. But the pandemic has only added fuel to the fire, and highlighted quite drastically that something has to change. Students should never have, and will no longer be expected to accept the bare minimum, and should not be told “this is what you signed up for”. 

As the media has shown, students are being vilified because of their decision to move into halls, when many are quick to forget they were simply doing what they were told to by the government and the University that has taken their money. But for your typical student living in halls, is it worth giving it all up to commute into University? The reality for the commuting student now (if they’re lucky to have classes taught in person on campus) is navigating public transport where often social distancing isn’t possible, whilst facing delays and cancellations of trains. With the ever changing guidance of the government, is living in halls genuinely safe for students compared to those who are having to travel into University whilst coming into contact with several people on their journey into campus. It is becoming seemingly apparent that students are at the very brunt of this, and cannot win whatever they choose. 

Since February, Students’ Union predicted the circumstances around student accommodation would be exactly like they have played out, yet nobody listened. Universities knew what they were doing and the risk it would take to have students living in halls, trying to enforce the unenforceable, whilst selling a dream to students about their contact time and in person lectures. And what SU’s said would happen has become a reality, and yet all too often we hear that SUs are the main channel of student voice to the powers that be within University Management, but seemingly this is only when it suits them. Now SUs are being faced with students justifiably unhappy about their accommodation and the rules that they have to follow, because this was not what students signed up for, with expectation that they will pick up the pieces. It is more important than ever that University’s consult their student body, not just their SUs, for a much needed rain check on what Higher Education is actually like right now.

Whether students are in catered accommodation, self- catered shared flats and kitchens, or studio apartments, everyone is facing the same reality of juggling mental health whilst working out how to make extra money when jobs are few and far between and rent is so high. 80% of students are worried how they will manage financially as a result of coronavirus and 72% of students are worried about their ability to pay rent as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak according to NUS Students and Coronavirus Survey conducted in April 2020. Across the sector students are facing financial hardship whilst Universities are struggling to cover even a fraction of students needs within the hardship funds they offer. But the root of the matter is the government charges over £9,000 for tuition fees which is not supplemented by a student finance package that covers living costs for the majority of students. We know that with an economy declining and job prospects drying up at a rapid rate, students will not be able to continue living in halls of residence at the cost it is currently because of the back breaking debt they have piling on top of them. 

We saw in 2016 more than 1,000 students go on a rent strike on campuses across the UK with students successfully challenging their Universities and getting rent freezes and commitment from University Management to cutting rent prices in the long term too. Is this something that our students should be considering? We saw the success of the UCL strike back in 2016, and I fear that in the coming months that a rent strike will be the last resort for many Student Unions’ and student groups, because their voices are not being taken seriously. 

The overall appeal of student accommodation is running cold, and the pandemic has exacerbated an already treacherous mountain of debate around standard of living and value for money. But now it’s not reputation that should be on University’s minds, but how they support those who have moved into their halls of residence and their mental health, and what they can do to subdue a resurge of the virus, which seems all too inevitable.

Natalie Hobkirk is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Campaigns for Students.

You can follow Natalie on Twitter: @Natalie_Hobkirk

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Published by Natalie Hobkirk

Former President of St Mary's University Students' Union (two terms). I’m passionate about all things Higher Education, as well as current affairs and social justice. Woman, Feminist, Tea Drinker, Gin enthusiast, Foodie, Plant Mum and Dog Lover.

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