One of the least surprising findings of the most recent iteration of the long-standing NUS/Unipol Accommodation Costs Survey is that rents have gone up – again.
Rents rose by 6% since last year. Rent increases are consistently higher than rates of inflation for the same period and when rent is factored in as a proportion of the maximum financial support a student can receive, there emerges quite a startling picture.
On average rent comprised 55% of the maximum available loan in 2012-13. It then rose to 62% in 2015-16 and by 2018, accounted for 73% of the that amount. It’s worth remembering that just a small proportion of students are eligible for the maximum loan – which means that there will be many students spending a considerably higher proportion of their available funds on rent.
This is in spite of an increase in the amount that students are borrowing and the amount of debt that is being accrued. The increasing costs of student accommodation is therefore inexplicably linked with the spiralling of student debt in recent years.
Squeezing the lower middle
The exorbitant price of accommodation is not just an issue for students from the lowest income backgrounds. In fact it’s possible to make a convincing case that it’s the students from lower middle-income backgrounds who are penalised the most in this arrangement. Students’ whose parents earn just above the cut-off points for the maximum loan package and often the criteria for lower cost rooms, are facing biting hardship.
One lazy assumption often heard from Treasury is that that these students can access funds from their parents to top up their loans to cover living expenses. This has created a new cultural norm which sees students work more than 20 hours per week in paid employment when there is plenty of evidence to suggest this has a detrimental effect on their ability to study, keep up with their peers and look after their mental health.
This all means that we need to radically rethink our model for student accommodation. This will require an objective view of all of the costs faced by students throughout their time in university, considering what is reasonable for students to pay and to borrow to access and excel in education. We must understand what cost barriers there are.
The Auger review offers some hope. With an established focus on access and value for money, the aspiration of the review is to ensure fairness and transparency in the funding system for HE. This would be meaningless without a concerted effort to tackle the issue of affordability in accommodation.
It’s not just the cost
As was articulated to the sector by Eva Crossan Jory, the NUS Vice President (Welfare), in a speech today any reforms to purpose-built student accommodation must address all aspects of applying for, residing in, and moving on from student accommodation.
Changes in legislation will soon make it illegal to charge additional fees to students looking to rent a room, except for holding deposit and a security deposit. This should end the inexcusable practice of charging all kinds of often spurious fees – such as for booking, application, referencing and cancellation. This is a step in the right direction.
Likewise changes in regional planning regulation would, in some areas, make it necessary for all new accommodation to have a nominations agreement with an institution, reinforcing the link between the university and where a student lives while they study.
But beyond that, the NUS would like to see developers and architects taking on board the lessons from groups such as the Healthy Universities Network, both designing rooms that are cost efficient and creating space in buildings for shared areas and social spaces.
The student voice is critical in all of this and feedback must be sought especially from students that are leaving purpose-built accommodation. For too long, universities and developers have focused exclusively on the perceived desire of prospective students who, important though they are, have limited experience or understanding of what they need or want from their accommodation in their very first year.
Are residential life packages really worth the money? Will gym membership really make the difference in terms of the enjoyment of your halls? Is living in a tiny a studio for nine months really the best way to make new friends in a new city?
And if we commit to a radical rethink of the sector, we should not be afraid to ask whether student accommodation should remain the domain of first years and international students only. Is there scope for it to become the living arrangement of choice for all students? Can we create something affordable and co-designed that provides a sociable and supportive environment in which all students can thrive? We can and we should.