Many new undergraduates were victims of accommodation shortages this autumn, with hundreds having to take rooms in hotels, according to the National Union of Students.
Almost 200 Liverpool students were in hotels during freshers' week after delays in the completion of an accommodation block owned by the private contractor Unite Group.
Kirk Sadler, a Liverpool John Moores University student, said: "It's been one problem after another. The accommodation is a building site, many rooms are not ready and I've spent all my time dealing with floods, sewage, lack of microwaves, people's stuff going missing. It's been a shambles and many students are coping very badly."
At the University of Hertfordshire, 350 students had to be placed in hotel accommodation, and some were having to double up in larger student rooms.
Part of the huge demand for accommodation at Hertfordshire was due to the popularity of the new De Havilland campus, according to David Ball, dean of students. "We are very concerned to ensure that nobody arrives at the university without having somewhere to stay and we take great trouble to ensure that our students are properly housed," he said. "The university is about to start building 1,400 en suite rooms on its College Lane campus."
Accommodation shortages were also reported at De Montfort University and Cardiff Medical School.
In Liverpool, the Unite Group blamed third-party builders, which had run up against "unforeseen problems developing its Grand Central site, for the failure to complete on time. The company said 300 students had moved in.
But some 195 students were without rooms on arrival in Liverpool and, after several hours, were given temporary hotel accommodation plus a promise of compensation and assistance with moving once the rooms were ready.
Nick Porter, chief executive of the Unite Group, said: "We are very aware that this is an important time for our customers and have put in place comprehensive procedures to ensure minimum disruption until the remainder of rooms are ready. It is regrettable that some students have been delayed moving into their accommodation in Liverpool. We apologise unreservedly. We are doing our best to ensure that they are comfortable and happy until they can move in."
A spokeswoman for LJMU said queries were being referred to Unite. "Together with our student union, we are looking after the welfare of all of the new students, including the students from Grand Central, and trying to ensure that any disruption to the start of their uni-versity life is kept to a minimum."
Mr Sadler remained unimpressed, however. Students were required to pay £1,500 in advance for rent, he said, plus a further £350 in booking fees and deposits. And while the students' union had been doing all it could, he said the university had offered no assistance to homeless students.
"Since everyone is now spread across the city we have not been able to get to know one another and everyone is very downhearted," he said. "It is no way to start university life."
The NUS criticised Unite for the "inexcusable' failure to complete the accommodation in time". Welfare vice-president Verity Coyle said: "This is not the first time a private provider has failed to live up to its promises - the NUS has had to deal with many cases in the past couple of years."
A spokesperson at Liverpool University said all students affected had been offered alternative accommodation. "As yet, we have received very few calls from students who are experiencing difficulties. We have excellent student welfare services in place to assist any students who need help."
But according to Ms Coyle, neither university in Liverpool had done enough to respond to the problem. "Unfortunately, this whole push towards public-private partnerships as a way of delivering student services results in institutions divorcing themselves from their responsibilities towards their students. But it is still fundamentally the responsibility of the university to ensure that the student experience is a good one."
Many universities are turning to the private sector to cope with the growing cost of accommodation. At Lincoln University, for instance, where the student population has mushroomed in seven years from 500 to about 5,000, most students live in private accommodation in the city centre.
The university provides 1,000 rooms at its Brayford Pool campus and gives priority to non-local first-years, although no one is guaranteed accommodation on campus.
A purpose-built £16.5 million private development in the former bus depot next to the campus will provide rooms for 560 students in September 2004 and a similar private development is being planned on the opposite side of the Brayford marina.
"We work closely with the city council and private developers from day one to ensure that the accommodation they provide is appropriate," a university spokesman said. "We also have a code of practice for private landlords and developers and we provide students with a list of all those landlords who have agreed to abide by the code. Universities have a responsibility to work closely with providers to ensure that what they offer is suitable."