Student housing has been in crisis for years. While it has been Covid outbreaks, accommodation lockdowns and wasted rent that have captured headlines over the last two years, in reality these exposed the grave injustices of a student housing system that has long been broken.
So the 2021/22 iteration of the Accommodation Costs Survey – jointly run by NUS and Unipol every three years – comes at an important moment. Running since 1982, the survey provides a comprehensive view of trends and costs in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).
Prices past the point of no return
This year’s findings have been nothing short of astonishing. Since the last survey in 2018/19 – the final academic year before Covid-19 – average rents have increased by over £1,000, or 16 percent.
This is well above inflation – continuing a concerning trend that has seen average student rents in the UK skyrocket by 61 percent over the past decade, from £4,581 to £7,374.
For students in England, but living outside of London and away from home, the maximum student loan this year is £9,488. Their average annual rent is £6,707. This means that for the students least likely to get external support from loved ones, rent accounts for 72 percent of their loan income, leaving them with £2,781.
Spread across 40 weeks’ term-time, these students have just £69.52 a week to live on. And the figures are more shocking for those living in London, where the maximum student loan is £12,382 but the average rent is £10,857. With a whopping 88 percent of the average rent, this leaves students with a mere £38 a week. Nobody can be expected to live off this.
Of course, not all bedspaces are priced the same. Those provided by private operators are roughly one quarter (24.2 percent, or £1,505) more expensive than those supplied by institutions. And different room types don’t all cost the same. The number of studios, which are the most expensive accommodation stock, have increased by 296 percent in nine years.
Meanwhile, supply of the cheapest rooms has halved in the same period.
Rapid rent increases have been in part a result of a major shift from university provided accommodation to private sector accommodation. The number of rooms provided by universities has halved since 2012/13 from 222,160 to just 111,967, whilst private companies are now supplying well over double (361,717) the 142,439 spaces they were nine years ago.
This loss of university accommodation means less flexibility and security for students, as private providers lock them into higher risk financial commitments. As well as being twice as likely to require booking fees, and three times more likely to charge cancellation fees, this survey has revealed that private providers are also less likely to agree to payment plans or offer hardship funding to students in need. With an increase in providers making in year adjustments to rent, financial planning is made even harder for less wealthy students.
As designated public authorities, universities operate under a duty to consider or think about how their policies or decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act 2010. So it’s no huge surprise that our research showed university provided accommodation is more likely to cater to the needs of marginalised groups than private providers – during the pandemic, 54 percent of institutions provided support for disabled students, whilst fewer than one quarter (24 percent) of private providers did.
University respondents to the survey were also more likely (42 percent) to report that all staff who interacted with tenants had received Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. At 24 percent, the private sector trailed behind. Obviously, there is more work that both institutions and private providers can do in this area, but the point is clear – there is a gap between the private sector and universities on both rents and equality provisions which demonstrates the impact of universities continually losing control when it comes to PBSA.
Given the number of students entering higher education has never been greater, including those from poorer backgrounds, coupled with spiraling housing costs we are on a collision course. More needs to be done to support students living in PBSA. This should include providers offering bursaries to students from lower-income households, institutions working with the private sector to ensure that there is a duty of care for student welfare, and all providers should commit to supplying a higher proportion of genuinely affordable accommodation.
Getting a grip
There are also broader problems upstream. The government bases its understanding of students’ education costs on an out-of-date Student Income and Expenditure Survey carried out in 2014. This is not a reliable basis for creating policy, so at the very least it should commit to sourcing new information on the actual costs students bear. It should also commit to ensuring standards are updated so that student accommodation provides for good working and learning conditions, and they must improve the student redress process.
Affordable housing is at the heart of a truly accessible education system. This survey has identified yet again that the current student housing system prioritises profits over people, and that providers and the government – who profess commitments to widening participation – prop up this unsustainable model that is heavily impacting the most vulnerable students. It’s no secret that successive governments have failed students. When the education system is as broken and the housing market, it’s time to start over and transform it.