It’s easy to think of the growing student accommodation crisis in the UK as one that is being faced by Britain alone.
But despite landlords here blaming uncertain and growing regulatory burdens as the cause of a decline in the supply of properties into the Private Rental Sector (PRS), and a tendency for others to just throw their hands up and argue that as a subset of the wider crisis we just need to “build more houses”, there is in fact a growing problem right across Europe.
Averaging across the EU, the cost of student housing increased by an average of 38 per cent between 2010 and 2020, making it increasingly unaffordable for many. And the Class Foundation’s European Student Living Monitor report of 2023 highlights that students who encounter financial difficulties are the ones with the worst mental health scores. The UK isn’t bottom of the table – but it’s not far off.
Across Europe, governments’ reluctance to fund the massification of HE directly is causing non-EU migration to be seen as the answer to a financial hole – with resultant housing issues invariably catching municipal, regional and national governments out even when there is a modicum of student housing planning. Add to that high inflation and interest rates, the switching of the PRS into holiday letting and governments acting to protect tenants from exploitation in markets where competition fails to do the job, and you can see a crisis everywhere.
The number 1 impact is on price, and some argue temporary rent controls are the answer. The French government announced last June that it would limit rent increases by 3.5 per cent for a whole year amid news that the government’s plan to build 60,000 new student housing units between 2018 and 2022 was floundering, with only 36,000 built by the end of 2021. Last year the Flemish parliament announced an immediate rent freeze for properties with insufficient energy efficiency – a measure widely believed to be targeted at students and young people, but also one doing little to stimulate supply.
Understanding what other countries are doing about all of this is important to determining the kinds of actions that governments across the UK should take in both the short and long term. Wales has no discernable plan save for a consultation on rent controls and supply in the PRS generally; Scotland has a long-delayed Purpose Built review whose recommendations are now long-overdue; and in England ministers continue to argue that they have no role or plans to assume a role at all.
Miserably, to the extent to which we can see a pattern, it appears to be characterised by poor planning, demand suddenly outstripping supply, and then a kind of hyper-financialization kicks in – with private investment moving in to serve the affluent. It is the extent to which governments have a plan, and then seek to respond to the worsening of the problem through demand restrictions and supply conditions, that varies.
Unlike the UK’s attempt in 2019 – which failed to mention it at all – the Republic of Ireland’s higher education internationalisation strategy in 2016 at least noted the availability of accommodation as an “essential element” of the plan. Seven years ago there was already an honest recognition that a crisis was brewing, fuelled by increasing international and domestic student numbers.
An inter-departmental group on student accommodation was already exploring long-term strategies – although even that failed to arrest a post-pandemic worsening of the crisis that has seen widespread coverage of student homelessness in Ireland’s major student cities.
A National Student Accommodation Strategy was launched in July 2017 as a key component of the Irish government’s broader housing and educational policies, and aimed to facilitate both more purpose-built student accommodation and encourage the public to take students in as lodgers – with financial incentives on offer for both, along with significant increases to student financial support via SUSI grants.
There’s still an acute crisis in cities like Dublin – but progress is being made, and just last week ministers announced a €434 million financing initiative involving the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) to give universities the capacity to potentially deliver more than 2,700 student beds across Ireland.
There’s been a growing crisis in the Netherlands for some time now, which thanks to the Kences National Student Housing Monitor (which provides accurate and up-to-date figures on supply and demand for student housing) is quantified – enabling some detailed planning and controversial interventions to address growing press coverage of international students failing prey to scammers, students being offered rooms in exchange for sex and cities resorting to erecting tents.
The country has also managed to coordinate some cross-departmental work on the issue, with its 2022 National Action Plan for Student Housing setting a target to build 60,000 affordable student homes by 2030 in response to current and projected housing shortages.
It’s also sensible enough to have anticipated (rather than in the UK where we see a trade-off over) strengthened regulation over room size and sub-letting – although given that increases in international students are widely accepted to be an exacerbater of the problem, ministers have flirted with restrictions on international recruitment, and commentary about and potential regulation over degrees taught in English making the country “too popular”, increasing temporary migration beyond city housing capacity as a result.
Despite the lack of affordable housing for students in big cities being a “deplorable state of affairs” for decades, the crisis appears to have caught the imagination of the popular press in Germany this year. A week or so ago Deutsche Welle reported that sharp rent increases and demand for camp sites are the inevitable symptoms of think-tank reports that the country faces a shortage of more than 700,000 apartments in Germany – especially in the affordable part of the market(s) – with international students identified as among those particularly impacted.
There is some action over the issue, however. In September the Social Democrat-Green-Free Democrat coalition Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a range of measures to stimulate activity in the building sector, including a controversial postponement of a new energy efficiency standard for new buildings and better terms for government-backed loans for housing.
There’s also “Junges Wohnen”, a dedicated federal and state government housing strategy for young people aimed at supporting the creation and modernisation of affordable housing for students. Backed by a subsidy of €500 million, it is said to be providing the largest amount of investment funding for student halls of residence since the 1970s.
Like many European countries, declining per-head funding has been leading universities to take on more non-EU international students – widely believed to be a key factor in acute student housing shortages across its key university cities that came to a head 4 or 5 years ago. In 2019 the Social Democratic Party proposed a “roof-over-the-head guarantee” for students, simultaneously suggesting providing municipalities with the tools and terms to build more permanent housing for youth.
That never quite made it into the resultant coalition’s programme, but since then the Danish government has capped international student recruitment, had a run at restricting university expansion to new cities that might benefit from the economic and educational stimulus, and has reduced English-language programmes by 25 per cent. A mix of both supply and demand side interventions is widely believed to have given the most impacted municipalities an opportunity to catch up – with planners in Copenhagen even advocating for a new island to ease the problems.
The average price of rooms and flats for students to rent rose by 10.5 per cent in the last year – reaching well over €400 a month in Lisbon and Porto, according to the latest report from its Student Accommodation Observatory.
The report was commissioned by the Directorate-General for Higher Education (DGES), and highlights both a collapse in supply and a surge in demand – resulting in real problems for the student experience, according to FAL, its version of NUS:
There are people who come and go every day, ending up traveling two, three hours”, he says. “This is also quite worrying, because it takes away time from studying, time from socializing, it takes away the freedom of being able to spend more time, spending time with colleagues, it also degrades mental health, brings physical exhaustion.
Portugal has also had a National Plan for Accommodation in Higher Education (PNAES) for some time – but has found that adverse economic conditions have caused schemes to take a long time to get off the ground, which when coupled with increases in non-EU internal students have caused the crisis.
Earlier this year in Italy, protests over student housing emerged across its major university cities. Despite over 70 per cent of home domiciled university students living with their parents, demand has been growing – and given the scarcity of accommodation that is usually targeted at low-income families and the disabled, student number growth has caught the country out.
In response to the protests, Giorgia Meloni’s government announced that it would invest €660m (money from Italy’s slice of the EU’s post-Covid recovery fund) to create new university accommodation. And universities taking part in its HE minister Anna Maria Bernini’s working group on the issue have also successfully called on the government to convert empty state property into student homes to provide more immediate relief.
Central and Eastern Europe
A report from Colliers International and the law firm CMS says that Warsaw will be the worst city hit by a student housing crisis set to spread into Central and Eastern Europe, highlighting universities tightening budgets and stopping spending on new accommodation. International student numbers have been growing fast, partly to offset reductions in home participation in some countries – although that factor is widely believed to be causing hesitancy among investors and both national and local government over investment in new beds.