Let me tell you about my Cambridge days. Don’t worry, I’m not about to regale you with stories of hilarious student japes – that time we drank vodka and Red Bull at Cindy’s until we were sick.
That’s partly because, for me, Cambridge’s least salubrious nightclub wasn’t called Cindy’s – it had been rebranded long before I had the misfortune to spend an evening in it, and the name lives on only among Cambridge students (for reasons best known to them).
I was town, not gown, and after going to university elsewhere, returned to work on the local newspaper. I spent several enjoyable years learning the trade, covering court cases involving people I remembered from school. But it wasn’t exactly a life of luxury. My starting salary, in the early 2000s, was £12,000 a year. I could afford to live in the city only thanks to a sibling, who paid most of the rent on the house we shared. Getting on to the property ladder was out of the question.
I’m not expecting you to shed many tears for impoverished local newspaper hacks. But in the place of the struggling journalist, insert nurse, teacher or any mid- to lower-paid professional you deem worthy of sympathy. And for Cambridge, swap almost any university city in the South East of England, and plenty more elsewhere.
Even for an established academic, saving enough money to buy a house in a city where a two-up, two-down might cost half a million pounds is often easier said than done.
Which brings me to our news story this week on universities that are offering loans and shared equity schemes to help academics buy – Cambridge put £4 million into such a scheme last year.
For the lucky few who benefit it must be a great help, but they will remain the few, and as University of Oxford professor and social commentator Danny Dorling notes, this approach does, to at least some degree, risk exacerbating an already overinflated property market.
Cambridge’s intervention is understandable, particularly as it’s competing for academic talent internationally; I’ve heard more than one academic mention property prices as a significant factor when weighing up options about where in the world to work.
Universities in the UK are competing with institutions in some of the most desirable parts of the US, for example, where salaries are often much higher and where you may be able to buy a ranch rather than a two-bed terrace.
But while it’s understandable that universities that can are trying to help key academics, these institutions also need administrators who can afford to live nearby, not to mention caterers and gardeners, and their staff and students need a town that has bus drivers, too.
As things stand, many university staff are being priced out of university towns, and the only long-term answer is to build more houses. Cambridge is doing that too at its North West Development site, which will have 1,500 new homes for university staff, as well as houses for general sale and, crucially, accommodation for postgrads. It’s a huge investment, but vital if Cambridge is to continue to compete at the highest level. And as a case study, it highlights the many identities that universities have to take on – property developer is just one more.