Everyone needs a home. So why do we deny them to estranged students?

Liam McCabe describes how the higher education sector and system fails estranged students in Scotland over housing.

Everyone needs a home. This is not a controversial opinion, or at the very least it shouldn’t be.

Yet straightforward access to housing is not the experience of most estranged students in Scotland. Due to the protections in place to secure the incomes of landlords, a prospective tenant must provide a guarantor who can pay the tenants rent if they are unable to do so themselves.

Usually, this is not a huge hurdle for most students. If a student is younger, moving straight into college or university from high school, their parent will often act as their guarantor. If a student is mature, they’ll likely have a more stable housing situation as a result of years of earning full time income before entering or re-entering the education system.

Who do they turn to?

But for estranged students, especially those who are younger and have just missed out on the legal protections that come with having experiences of care, who can they turn to? They cannot rely on their parents or guardians without exposing themselves to harmful, toxic or unsafe relationships, and other extended family relationships may be equally compromised. Without supportive relationships with stable adults they have little hope of accessing a guarantor in the way most students take for granted.

As a matter of necessity, estranged students must have the support required to circumvent these difficulties. If they don’t have people around them who are able or willing to be their guarantor, it is the responsibility of our colleges, universities and the Scottish Government to intervene and make sure this does not prohibit them from accessing the accommodation they need to have a successful education. But the sector is failing estranged students in this regard and, as a result, is jeopardising not just their education, but their safety.

The straightforward solution to the problem of poor access to a guarantor is for institutions, backed financially by the Scottish Government if necessary, to step in and fill that gap. This should make all the sense in the world; institutions understand the value and necessity of secure housing to education, the challenges that are faced by estranged students and other vulnerable groups, and have more than ample resource to offset the risks of taking on the liabilities associated with being a guarantor in a way that individuals in a students’ life may not.

Without this lifeline, estranged students and many others faced with similar issues are often forced into using companies who prey on their vulnerability – charging a premium to provide a guarantor, with massive upfront costs and making huge profits as a result. Student vulnerability should never be a business opportunity, and allowing it to be is a damning indictment of our sector.

What does the sector do now?

Scotland has over 40 colleges and universities, but of that number only four have guarantor schemes accessible to estranged students and others who face similar difficulties. Even so, where the existence of these schemes are a positive indication that some are taking steps to tackle these issues, they are not without their faults.

Of the four institutional schemes, one of them only allows students to apply if they are using their institution’s accommodation, and two of them expressly prohibit certain kinds of tenancies – those with joint or several liability which, by necessity, include multiple tenants. Each of these cases is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, on cost, accommodation is often going to be less affordable if a person is staying on their own, and student specific accommodation is often more expensive than that found in the private rented sector (PRS). The insistence that students only stay in their particular institutions’ accommodation ensures they will be paying more than they otherwise might be in the PRS. Furthermore, the refusal to become a guarantor for some of the most common kinds of tenancies will see students forced to remain in their own student halls, pushed into highly expensive private purpose-built student accommodation or, worst of all, into insecure accommodation, operating out-with the protections afforded by a tenancy agreement.

Secondly, on inclusivity and compassion, the PRS generally offers students not only more affordable accommodation, but also the opportunity to choose who they live with. It’s likely that many estranged students, until arriving at college or university, had been living in a household with parents or guardians with whom they had a toxic or harmful relationship. After getting into FE and HE, and having made friends on their courses, its entirely reasonable that they might seek accommodation with those people they have become close to.

If attending the two institutions in question, where there is no explicit ban on renting with others (but an effective one due to the prohibition on certain kinds of tenancy agreements), estranged students will find themselves rejected despite having nowhere else to turn other than the predatory private guarantor providers mentioned earlier.

This is particularly objectionable because not only are students having support denied to them which purports to meet their needs, but because institutions are preventing estranged students from living in a safe, secure, supportive environment with people they trust perhaps for the first time in their entire lives. Moreover, at one such institution, they will only support students on joint or several liability tenancies if all of the individuals in that accommodation are from the institution and eligible for the scheme.

Of the four institutions mentioned, there is only one scheme which doesn’t have restrictions based on the kind of tenancy a student is seeking to enter. In this case, the institution will act as the guarantor for their student, even in a joint or several liability agreement, stressing that they will only cover the liability for that student alone. However, the scheme is capped at fifty students at a university which has over twenty thousand.

Furthermore, the scheme is available to international students and other groups who have difficulty in finding a guarantor. Given the relatively low numbers of estranged students in our institutions, in relation to the high numbers present in other eligible cohorts, it is likely that many could miss out on such an opportunity and, once again, find themselves with very few choices other than those which will further augment their precarity.

What’s the problem?

So why do institutions with guarantor schemes attach conditions to them which either restrict students’ choices or limit the numbers of students who can benefit from vital support? The best explanation available seems to be that institutions have compromised an important lifeline for vulnerable students because of the risk posed by taking on their liability.

While it is understandable and necessary for institutions to undertake proper risk management, you would hope to see risk mitigation be less of a concern when determining how best to support some of their most vulnerable students in such a centrally important way. By viewing this as just another liability, universities are failing to engage meaningfully with the needs of estranged students.

That’s why we’re calling on the Scottish Government to play a more proactive role on this issue. The government should be asking institutions why they are failing to provide guarantor support to students who will struggle to enter education without the firm foundation a secure home provides. If necessary, they should also be looking at the issues of risk and liability, how that might be dissuading institutions and seek to offset these factors if it means all students, wherever they study in Scotland, can access the help they need when they need it.

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