Universities believe their student facilities are top-notch and do not need government licensing. Jennifer Currie reports
If families live in homes and bachelors live in pads, what do students live in? Traditionally, they have always lived in digs -- a phrase that instantly conjures up images of dank, dark rooms and formidable landladies. Those who chose to brave the cuisine of the university hall of residence would be subject to the horrors of communal bathrooms and equally formidable hall wardens.
Just as student expectations have changed with the advent of their role as consumer, today's universities pride themselves on being better landlords. This belief was recently confirmed when university principals firmly rejected government proposals that suggested that student residences should be included under a multiple-occupancy licensing scheme.
The joint rejection by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Committee of Principals came as a response to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions consultation paper on the licensing of houses in multiple occupation in England. David Tupman, a CVCP policy adviser, said that all higher education institutions already had clear maintenance programmes.
"We are good landlords and have a good safety record. Student residencies cannot be equated with the 'worst housing conditions' and accommodation that is 'squalid and in disrepair' that are the government's stated targets," he said.
Under existing legislation, university-owned accommodation is exempt from registration arrangements. The CVCP has asked for this exemption to remain intact because it believes that a licensing scheme would not only increase sector costs and impose additional bureaucracy, but that students would suffer from increased financial pressure as a result. Although the government acknowledges that students are at greatest risk when renting in the private sector from so-called Rachman landlords, it believes that there is evidence of unacceptable standards within the higher education sector. It is this that the CVCP takes issue with.
"The higher education sector is exempt from registration for local licensing schemes under the 1996 Housing Act but is not exempt from maintaining adequate fire and amenity standards. All higher education institutions have safety officers," Mr Tupman said.
Many universities have managed to keep student rent prices at a national average of Pounds 48 a week by cashing in on the vacation and conference summer season. Carole Formon, executive director of the British Universities Accommodation Consortium, said that the commercial market is proving to be a vital source of finance.
She said: "When the students are on holiday, the commercial side is really the life blood of universities. They are very keen to
do the welcome host and the customer-care programmes offered by regional tourist boards."
For this reason, much of the recently built accommodation conforms to hotel safety standards. Builders have now started work on the City of Bristol College's Pounds 20 million development, which will include a campus, residential flats and a budget hotel.
Ms Formon said: "Student expectations are greater today. They come from nice homes and are not prepared to put up with just anything. They want decent facilities - which they will get as the first customers of the university." Students moving away from home for the first time can look forward to settling into surroundings that fall somewhere between an extension of the parental home and a four-star hotel, rather than a prison cell. Many single study bedrooms now boast double beds, computer points and en suite facilities. Many institutions have purpose-built training centres attached, such as Strathclyde University's picturesque Ross Priory conference centre. Located on the banks of Loch Lomond, it was designed with business clients, not students, in mind.
The National Union of Students is determined to ensure that its members do not have to put up with "just anything", and it is for that reason that it has welcomed the DETR's plans to license university-owned accommodation. James Asser, NUS vice-president for welfare, said that although halls of residence may be far safer than many properties available within the private rented sector, universities should not be exempt from licensing.
He said: "Halls are houses of multiple occupancy. Universities may need to spend vast amounts of money for them to meet requirements of the licensing scheme, but by implication, this means that the money needs to be spent anyway. There are many examples of good practice, but there are very bad examples as well."
The NUS claims that some institutions have threatened students with disciplinary action if they try to report poor safety levels. Others are alleged to have spent substantial sums on legal fees to prevent local authorities from enforcing statutory standards. Licensed accommodation would therefore act as a hallmark of approval for concerned parents.
The NUS said in its response to the DETR consultation paper: "Some institutions are only too aware that some or all of their accommodation does not comply with safety standards, and this runs contrary to what we know both students and their parents are looking for when decisions are being made as to which institution to attend."
The response recommends that universities adopt a self-certification scheme, which would be subject to local authority spot checks.
Mr Asser said: "It is not a case of the NUS trying to create more administration or extra costs for universities. In view of student hardship we want to make sure our members are able to live in decent accommodation."
The NUS has estimated that students in institutional accommodation spend 63 per cent of their weekly income on rent.
A recent CVCP survey of 47 institutions found that more than Pounds 219 million has been spent improving university residential estates in the past three years.
Such large-scale investment across the country has caused construction companies to rub their hands with glee. The Bristol-based Unite Group has estimated that more than half of the sector's 160,000 accommodation places are in need of refurbishment and that many of the 1960s residences owned by older institutions should be upgraded to meet the demands of modern students. The government's pledge to increase access to higher education by 500,000 places in the next five years has also been interpreted as a sign of a blossoming market.
A Unite spokesperson said: "Universities are under increasing political and economic pressure to provide high-quality student accommodation. They need to compete on lifestyle issues as well as academic reputation."
Unite is designing "modular solutions" for a number of institutions across the country. Similar models have also been used by hotel chains and the Home Office for prisons.
Universities have to learn to move with the times, said Sue Houchen, an accommodation officer at Teesside University. "Particularly now, because of the introduction of tuition fees, students will expect to be treated like any other consumer. We are trying to provide as good a standard as possible," she said.
Like most other institutions, Teesside monitors its yearly intake in relation to its accommodation provision. Fears that the introduction of fees will cause more students to stay at home have not been confirmed at Teesside, although Ms Houchen acknowledges that it is a worry that must be accounted for. "Finances are a paramount concern for students, and the numbers may drop. It's a shame, as part of the university experience is going away from home."
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DEFINITION
There is no consistent view as to whether or not forms of student housing constitute houses in multiple occupancy.
According to the government's definition, an HMO is a house that is occupied by more than one household. Nationwide, most occupants in HMOs are under 30, and more than half are in full-time education. Purpose-built HMOs such as halls of residence do not fall under this definition. But what constitutes a household?
The government has been considering applying the licensing scheme to all residential property, except that which is occupied by a single family or is exempt. (Under the 1985 Housing Act, family ties extend to relationships by blood and marriage.)
HMO licensing powers in Scotland apply to houses that "are the only or principal residence of a specified number of persons who are not all members of one family or one or other of two families". The government is keen to adopt this approach, but it says it is not convinced that all houses with three or four inhabitants should be excluded.
As there are more than 300,000 units of accommodation owned or managed by higher education institutions, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals argues that a national licensing scheme including universities and colleges would create a financial and administrative nightmare.
The National Union of Students would like the government to apply the definition suggested by homeless charity Shelter - "A house occupied by persons who are not members of the same family" - which would clearly include halls of residence.
Whatever it decides, the government has stated that it wants to avoid red tape.