On rents Liverpool listened and led – the sector should follow

There is a national affordability crisis for students in halls of residence.

NUS-UNIPOL’s most recent research says that in 2018/19 the overall average weekly rent stands at £147, “an increase of five per cent since last year, of 8.9 per cent on 2015/16 and 31.3 per cent since 2011/12”. Rents have exceeded RPI throughout the timeline and have become “increasingly detached from the index.”

Some of this increase is due to investments in PBSA portfolios often fuelled by interest-laden bonds – and an often unsubstantiated claim that students only want to live in student versions of the Ritz. Some is driven by a desire for universities to ‘diversify and increase’ their income streams to protect against precarious student number dips, tuition fee cuts and other looming financial pressures.

Other factors include the handing over of responsibility for PBSA to the profit-driven private sector and a desire from asset-rich universities, in areas most affected by the wider housing crisis such as London, to capitalise on said crisis by sweating assets despite pervasive poor conditions.

Student realities

These macro analyses make tough reading for students, but also miss the real horror of case studies. Take my institution, University of Liverpool. Here we had a mean rent of £158 p/w in 2018/19 – far outstripping the average £138 p/w maintenance loan issued to UK students. With the closure of Liverpool’s older Carnatic Halls this year, that average was set to increase to £167 p/w.

Not a single room fell under NUS’ very reasonable affordability guidelines of 50% of the maximum maintenance loan available. 1 in 6 students fell into rent arrears in the academic year 2017/18 and rather than investigate why 1 student in every flat was falling into arrears (a clear ‘red flag’ for welfare issues in anybody’s book?) or whether particular demographics were more likely to not meet payments, the university implemented legally dubious academic sanctions – banning students from the library and the Virtual Learning Environment to recoup the debt as quickly as possible.

Since 2015, student-led Cut the Rent and Rent Strike campaigns have been fighting back everywhere from London to Bristol, from Surrey to Liverpool. University of Liverpool has responded to our campaign in a strategic and considered way and has sought to meet NUS’ affordability guidelines by putting in place a meaningful set of resources and policies to address this issue.

Over the next four years, we will see an estimated rent reduction of £3.7 million for University of Liverpool students in receipt of the full or partial Liverpool Bursary and all other central Widening Participation Bursaries such as estranged students, Young Adult Carers and Care Leavers. Total future rent rises will also be capped at 3.5% per annum, and the university has agreed to cease applying academic sanctions for students in rent arrears.

A real shocker

I have been more than aware of the crisis in student rents for many years now, so NUS-UNIPOL’s main findings were a given to me. However, the finding that really shocked me and should be reflected on by the sector is this:

Universities are more optimistic than private providers that they can continue to hike rents as strongly as they have done in the past (24 per cent of institutions as against 17 per cent of private providers).

This shows two things. Firstly, how deeply embedded commercial logics have become in our public universities. Secondly, despite a growing surplus of PBSA bed spaces, and a forthcoming demographic dip in 18 year olds, university owned halls are largely insulated from ‘market forces’.

When both public and private PBSA providers were asked what they thought the greatest challenges would be in the future, respondents cited affordability most often. Evidently, student-led activism has succeeded in making affordability the concern for providers. I hope that Liverpool’s announcement spurs others to cease this worrying, and start acting – because if not, the student campaigns will only get bigger.

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