In the Commons, debates about students are all about perspective

Three things have come to characterise universities minister Robert Halfon’s approach to education questions in the Commons.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

He has a way of framing numbers. He keeps going on about parsnips. And he’s good at writing letters.

At education questions in the Commons, Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Con) had raised four press reports of the glorification of the Hamas attacks on campus, and Antony Higginbotham (Burnley, Con) had raised one.

They were undoubtedly serious incidents that deserved investigation – but whether universities minister Robert Halfon was then justified in repeatedly suggesting that “Hamas’ useful idiots” are “across our campuses” is another question. For Halfon, universities were hosting “a fifth column supporting terrorism”. He was doing everything possible. He had written to universities.

Later Rosie Duffield (Canterbury, Lab) and Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South, Lab) had raised cost of living support for students. Duffield told of a 650 per cent rise food bank users at the University of Kent. Halfon reassured her that £600 bursaries were available at Canterbury Christ Church – although he neglected to mention that they are only available for those with a family income of £25k or less, and haven’t gone up since 2019.

Greenwood reminded him that the value of the maintenance loan has fallen by £1,500 in real terms since 2020-21, and pointed to research from the University of Nottingham Students’ Union that had found one in five students had a weekly budget of £20 or less after rent and bills. This time Halfon pointed to the £1,000 bursary on offer from the university – although again neglected to mention that it’s only available for families on £25k or less and hasn’t gone up since 2019.

He was doing everything possible. Four times during the short debate, Halfon mentioned the department’s beloved magic money twig of £276m – funding to recognise the costs of supporting undergraduates most at risk of non-continuation, disabled students, student transitions and mental health. He neglected to mention that it was £352m in 2020/21 and now has to be spread between more students.

Labour Shadow Matt Western tried raising the number of students in work and suggested that the lack of support was forcing them out of education. Halfon saw no evidence of that, and noted that while Labour was criticising the money the government is giving, it had no figure of its own. “Warm words butter no parsnips”, said Halfon. Again.

Later the house got around to reading, for the second time, the long-delayed Renters (Reform) Bill – a piece of legislation which was either all about demonising landlords or supporting tenants. Clive Betts (Sheffield South East, Lab) wanted student housing to be exempt from the proposed ban on open-ended tenancies, citing shortages in Manchester. Secretary of State Michael Gove declared an interest the parent of a daughter at Manchester University. He will be doing everything he can.

Sir Robert Syms (Poole, Con) thought it vital that those who have invested in property near campuses (“our universities seem to be property companies, as far as I can see”) have the certainty of one year moving on when another year comes in, and Mary Robinson (Cheadle, Con) had been told by landlords that the ban on fixed term tenancies would take away certainty and security for landlords. She was reassured that the issue is being considered again.

It was all about perspective, really. Albeit that the house had pretty much emptied by 8.33pm, we did get an alternative view – Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood, Lab) explained the way in which fixed-term tenancies trap students. One of her constituents’ first-year students had died by suicide – but like so many, had signed a tenancy for his second-year accommodation, his parents signing a guarantor agreement to go with it. After their son’s death, they discovered that the guarantor agreement applied even in the event of his death, and the letting agent began pursuing them for the rent – for a tenancy that had not yet started and a tenancy that he would never take up:

In extensive correspondence with the letting agent on my constituents’ behalf, it refused to budge, simply stating that the rent was a contractual obligation and, although it was unfortunate, my constituents were bound to its terms.

It fell to the commons’ unofficial student champion Paul Blomfield to explain, with nuance and detail, the situation that students find themselves in. I’ve reproduced his contribution in full here – the sector really will miss him when he steps down at the next election.

Almost 40% of my constituents are private renters, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to reflect their concerns. Of those, many are students—I think I have the largest number of students of any Member in the country—and I want to raise their concerns as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students.

I was one of a cross-party group of 60 parliamentarians who wrote recently to the Secretary of State urging him to bring forward this legislation, so I am delighted that we have it. I did so primarily because of its promise to fulfil the Government’s pledge to end no-fault section 21 evictions, so it is a bitter disappointment that the Government appear to have frustrated the hopes of tenants by kicking the abolition of section 21 notices down the road to some potentially distant future, after further changes to the courts system—something that I saw that the National Residential Landlords Association has celebrated in a statement today, as a result of its “extensive lobbying”. I hope that the Government will think again, or at least give us an assurance this evening of the date when they plan to fulfil the ambition for no-fault evictions.

I hope the Government will go further in delivering the promised new deal for private renters in other areas, because I share the concern of the Renters Reform Coalition that the Bill needs amending to ensure that the proposed “landlord circumstances” grounds for eviction do not become the new section 21. The tenant should be given four months’ notice rather than two. There should be a one-year ban on re-letting after invoking the new landlord circumstances, rather than the proposed three months. We need stronger mechanisms than those proposed to stop unaffordable rent increases—of which we have heard examples already this evening—pricing tenants out and becoming the new section 21. We need to ensure that tenants can be confident in raising issues and making complaints without fear of retaliation. I hope that those issues will be considered seriously in Committee.

I want to raise the concerns of student renters. There is an exemption for purpose-built student accommodation, but many students live in the parts of the private rented sector that are covered by the Bill—around 45% of them, or 600,000 across England and Wales. Their voices have not been fully heard, which our all-party group has been trying to address. In May, we held a roundtable with student representatives from most of our major cities and many of our smaller towns. They agreed that there were many positive elements to the Bill, but raised issues that needed further clarification if it is to succeed for all renters.

I see that in his response to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State accepted the argument of landlords that “the student market is cyclical and…landlords must be able to guarantee possession each year for a new set of tenants”.

He went on to state that “we will introduce a new ground for possession to facilitate this.” I understand that case, and it was reflected in some of the student voices that we heard, but we need to take care about how we do it because there is an underlying false assumption in the discourse around the issue that all students fit a traditional stereotype: on three-year undergraduate courses, wanting a 10-month contract and leaving their university town when they finish their studies. However, students are not homogeneous. Undergraduates and postgraduates have different requirements; there are 30-week programmes and 52-week programmes; some courses start at different times of the year and have a different cycle. There are mature and part-time students, students with families, estranged students, international students, graduate apprentices, those who stay on to study or work during vacation while their friends do not, and those who want to make their university house a permanent home.

Many students live in mixed households, with recent graduates or other non-students. It simply would not work to have people in a mixed household on a shared tenancy with different rights. A grounds for possession clause might protect the market, but a one-size-fits-all approach will not address the fact that not all students want properties that are cyclical with the standard undergraduate year. So we need a clear definition of a student and how grounds for possession will be implemented. I would welcome some acknowledgement from the Minister, in winding up this evening, that the Government have given consideration to those complexities in their proposals in relation to students.

We also have to recognise that the student market differs greatly across the country. Large cities are different from smaller towns, and urban and rural-based universities are different again. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s study of the Scottish experience highlighted the risk in tourist areas, or in other areas with low supply and high rents, that not exempting students will encourage landlords to move out of student accommodation. Student representatives expressed concern to us about being priced out in some areas by young professionals. On the other hand, there are worries that exempting students in some areas will risk them becoming second class renters, attracting less scrupulous landlords into student accommodation because they are relatively unprotected tenants.

Student renters face many of the same issues as other renters and they deserve the same broad protections. They face specific issues, too. The raised with us the growing pressure they are under to view and sign tenancy agreements for a property earlier and earlier each year—often in this term, early in the academic session, before friendship groups are formed—leaving them locked into unwanted contracts. The Bill does not address that, but students felt that it should. There are other questions that need addressing if we are to exempt students. What happens if a renter’s student status changes during the tenancy? How will the Bill address the issue of joint tenancies?

To conclude, I simply say to the Minister that we should not rush to exempt students from the protections in the Bill relating to no-fault evictions and keep them uniquely locked into fixed-term tenancies without careful consideration of the impact on all types of students in all parts of England and Wales. Even then, we need to ensure they continue enjoy the protections in the Bill. I hope the Minister will agree to meet the all-party parliamentary group for students, and student representatives, to hear our concerns.

2 responses to “In the Commons, debates about students are all about perspective

  1. Another problem with the much vaunted ‘magic money twig’ figure is that they added £15m to it last year in recognition of the cost-of-living crisis, and despite inflation significantly outstripping the increases in student finance for the third year running, they’ve yet to announce any similar additional support this year. Although the Minister issued an instruction to the OfS in March 2023 to “maintain Student Premium and Mental Health funding for FY23/24 at the same levels as the previous year and ensure providers are aware they can draw on the Student Premium to support students in financial hardship”, the resulting recurrent grant information published by the OfS in June 2023 failed to replicate the ‘one-off’ funding for 2023/24.

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