The competing demands of Scotland’s student accommodation inquiry

Sunday Blake unpacks a new review into student housing in Scotland and its impact on the rest of the UK

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The Scottish government has published findings from a scoping review into Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA).

The stated intention is to consider how formal regulations could be introduced for accommodation providers. Currently, PBSAs are exempted from the Private Residential Tenancy (PRT) regime in Scotland, and do not have to comply with the conditions of the Equality Act 2010.

This review comes after the Scottish government recommitted to Fair Access to Higher Education last June – where Nicola Sturgeon pledged that by 2030, twenty per cent of entrants to university should come from the twenty per cent most deprived communities in Scotland.

But the pandemic represented a setback in progress against that pledge – with the most deprived communities suffering the worst in regards to infections and deaths, and therefore economic dislocation, school disruption, and possibly poor mental health.

So the review into this significant part of the student accommodation has to deliver against the pledge.

Bare access-ities

One thing to note is that the review had a low response rate – but submission sources did range from higher education institutions, student representative bodies, and PBSA providers.

The quantitative data was pretty damning – only fifty per cent of PBSA providers surveyed had rooms adapted for students with ambulatory disabilities. And only eight offered bursary schemes for care experienced, estranged students or students facing hardship. The reasons given for not providing such adaptations or provision? Lack of demand. Well, yes.

In terms of mental health support, most providers responded that their entire process is a signpost to either the students’ university services or NHS services. Only seventeen had staff trained in mental health first aid. Providers cited a lack of joined-up approaches between higher education providers and themselves when it comes to safeguarding students known to institutions to be high-risk and a desire for stronger collaboration. What results is inconsistent access to well-being support, which falls below expectations when providers have nominal contracts with universities with adequate welfare provision.

As expected, student representative organisations stressed the need for equity. They believed students should not be charged more for adapted rooms given the already high personal financial costs such as travel and equipment associated with living with a disability. Providers were concerned about the high cost of adapting rooms without the ability to recoup this expense in rent. Students also emphasised the complexity of navigating term-time leases and guarantor conditions when care experienced or estranged. Some providers had schemes in place to address these concerns – but this was not consistent across the sector.

May odds be ever in your favour

Lease agreements were also inconsistent. When the first lockdown was announced in the UK, many students who lived in university accommodation were given refunds if they chose to leave their contracts early. Some providers gave full or partial refunds, and some continued to collect full rent for empty rooms. Controversially, some of this latter group included providers who had nominal agreements with their local universities (who had provided full refunds).

Students in nominated halls understandably believed that they would be given the same rights and resources as their counterparts in the university halls. They were wrong. While this was remedied in the short term by the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020, providers objected that if students were able to end tenancies early during business-as-usual, then student accommodation would lose its investment appeal. They argued PBSAs would become either not viable as businesses or rent may rise in anticipation of needing to cover the lost income of terminated contracts.

Notwithstanding the persuasiveness of these arguments, it paints a poor picture for the government’s Fair Access aims. Student accommodation is already expensive compared to the private rental market, with little transparency into how rent prices are set, and costs that generally exceed student maintenance loans and year-on-year inflation. Disadvantaged students have to seek part-time work to pay rent unless supported financially by family. Respondents noted that rent might rise further to account for financial losses experienced by providers through the Covid-19 pandemic. Unaffordable accommodation prevents fair access to education as students are priced out of their accommodation choice.

Who’s job is it anyway?

Good things will likely emerge from all this on rent setting, clearer nominal agreements (particularly as the London Plan was referenced), best practice regarding accessible rooms, mental health safeguarding, and schemes for care experienced and estranged students recommendations.

But the underlying question within the responses is whose responsibility is it to fund the fixes. Throughout the survey, student representative priorities were constantly matched by providers’ reluctance to foot the bill. Will it be that the government’s commitment to fair access becomes collateral damage in the name of economic recovery as we come through the pandemic? Let’s hope not, given the positive impact on economic development when the full potential of people can be exploited in the job market.

The secondary question is whether will we also see a similar regulatory move in England and Wales. Given the former of these two failed to address the student rental concern during the pandemic, and the individualised approach to economic recovery recently announced, it seems unlikely.

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