University halls of residence may escape stringent rules outlawing substandard rented accommodation.
The proposals, which call for a mandatory national scheme to license privately owned, multiple-occupancy houses, would benefit about 500,000 students - but not the more than 130,000 students who live in university-owned halls of residence.
Although the halls are subject to general housing legislation and health and safety regulations, the government is still debating whether such accommodation should be licensed.
Liberal Democrat politicians are worried because, despite the existing legislation, some halls of residence offer poor accommodation. The National Union of Students said that according to its recent accommodation-costs survey a significant minority of university-owned properties were of an unacceptable standard.
Phil Willis, MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough and Liberal Democrat spokesman for further and higher education, said it was inconceivable that halls of residence should be exempted, particularly since many of them are run by private-sector companies.
Mr Willis said: "It is a cop-out. A hall of residence is to all intents and purposes a multiple-occupancy dwelling. I think the reason they may be exempted is because of the powerful university lobby, which believes that it would cost them too much money to upgrade accommodation. I find this unacceptable."
The Liberal Democrat campaign to license halls of residence is part of a broader drive to improve living conditions for students. The government's multiple-occupancy green paper will almost certainly include proposals to license, and possibly inspect, student flats and bedsits rented from private, non-university or college landlords.
Mr Willis told MPs last week that bedsit tenants are six times more likely to die as a result of fire than those with their own homes. He also pointed out that ten students have died since 1990 because they were poisoned by carbon monoxide from faulty gas heaters.
Minister for construction Nick Raynsford said: "We are committed to a national licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. But we are not convinced of the case for licensing the whole private sector. Such a scheme could be unduly bureaucratic and would involve unnecessary visits to properties that are in perfectly good condition."
A spokeswoman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said: "In 1996 and 1997 when this issue previously arose, universities in England and Wales sought exemption from regulations as it was accepted that universities were good landlords. Licensing would involve a bureaucratic and therefore financial burden that would have to be passed on to the residents. To call the exemption a cop-out is to misunderstand the position."
The Times HigherJFebruary 19J1999News 5 Neil Turner