Ten student housing issues for the APPG students to think about

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students meets today to discuss student accommodation. What are some of the things it might consider?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Back in 2019, the Augar review of post-18 fees and funding heard “widespread and significant” concerns about the cost of student accommodation, called on the government to commission a comprehensive financial analysis of private developers and operators of purpose-built student accommodation, and said OfS should improve the quality and consistency of data about costs, rents, profits and quality. The government failed to respond to that section in its entirety. Why?

Augar made clear that the public subsidy of student maintenance, much of which is spent on accommodation, gives the state a legitimate value for money interest in this area – yet in contrast to the relentless chatter over course VFM, it’s pretty difficult to find a minister that will take policy responsibility for student housing. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities tends to point at the Department for Education, and vice versa. A recent NAO report found that the two departments don’t even have any joint working arrangements. Don’t we need some clear ministerial responsibilities and something approaching a strategy?

The Tenant Fees Act is supposed to ban landlords (including those of purpose-built student accommodation) from levying charges outside of a strict list of permitted items – things like utilities, communication services, or TV licences. But during the pandemic plenty of isolated and lonely students were cash-fined for chatting to another student in another “bubble” – where the power to do so was in the licence agreement that was almost certainly a direct law breach, and where that power was in wider disciplinary regs, that looks like an attempt to get around the law. Why are students not protected?

Given the main purpose of the maintenance loan is about students’ living costs, we might reasonably assume that the DfE would be monitoring those living costs and adjusting maintenance entitlements accordingly. But DfE hasn’t taken a detailed look at those costs since 2014, and the recent response to Augar ignored the chapter on maintenance in its entirety. Why?

Supply is a major issue – with a number of cities this year reporting that they had simply run out of student bedspaces. Ideally, every year every vice chancellor in an area, in tandem with their local authority and local NHS trusts, would be jointly required to develop and publish a plan for scrutiny by their local community and students’ unions that demonstrates confidence that there will be ample medium term bedspace supply for the university’s student recruitment targets (and total “in attendance” students for the period) from the following September. It would contain a hard limit on the number of “in attendance” students that each university agrees to recruit by the end of clearing, fines and a detailed contingency plan if the number is overshot, some slack in the system to allow for student choice, commitments on support for finding housing if the slack is taken up, and a proper assessment of price range in the supply assessment that is matched to the university’s widening participation objectives. Why not?

Research report after research report finds that student accommodation is of poor quality – and when you have a market like that, you should regulate it aty source collectively, and enable students to enforce their rights individually. Collective regulation is broken, with local authorities unable to enforce the rules on HMOs due to lack of resource, and the evidence suggests that students neither know their rights nor feel able to challenge landlords. If we fund students’ unions, why don’t we fund tenants unions?

Student accommodation is a market whose rules and norms rob students of power. Students are pressured into signing on the line very early in fear of missing out both with HMO and both private and university PBSA landlords, and in large parts of the market universities act as a monopoly provider, and competition is minimal to non-existent. Shouldn’t CM be stepping in?

It’s right, of course, that students feel able to report racial and sexual harassment and misconduct in student accommodation – but providers’ own policies are not overseen by the OIA, and where a private firm houses students from multiple providers it’s not at all clear how a student might complain about a student from another university. Given we house students from multiple universities in the same buildings,  don’t we need to sort that out?

Accommodation is obviously a major access issue – lower income and disabled students are groups that face major barriers when it comes to the supply of safe, suitable, accessible and affordable housing. You can make a decent argument for every Access and Participation Plan to include assurance detail on these issues – if you recruit a student to live away from home, don’t you have a responsibility to make sure they’ll have somewhere to live that supports their study goals? Why do DfE ministers bang on about “getting in and getting on” without mentioning this?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about HE in the next decade, but not so much on the human geography implications. The absence of planning and abdication of responsibility for it over three decades of expansion is a problem – and we don’t even have accurate national data about where students live, or when they are moving. If universities were to have invested, with Treasury backing, in their own low cost accommodation, we would be in a far better place. Shouldn’t ministers be required to develop a proper plan?

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