Student accommodation: what is driving spiralling costs?

UCL rent strike has thrown the spotlight on a growing problem across the UK

March 3, 2016
Man walking past Student Home Zone office
Source: Alamy
Grab your wallet: there has been a boom in lavish accommodation, but the NUS and others say students want affordable housing

The issue of the rising cost of student rents in the UK came to a head in January when more than 150 UCL students refused to pay for their halls, demanding that the university reduce accommodation fees by 40 per cent. The protesters took to the streets in outrage against the fees, which they said had risen by 56 per cent since 2009.

The cost of student accommodation has climbed dramatically in recent years – the latest review of student housing by commercial property adviser Bilfinger GVA estimated that the average student in London pays a staggering £220 a week for rent alone. The research, which focused on 28 of the main student towns and cities in the UK, highlighted Swansea and Leicester as being the only two areas bearing an average rent of less than £120 a week.

This is only making it harder for those from poor backgrounds to make ends meet, say student organisations, which draw attention to the fact that maintenance grants are being scrapped in favour of higher living cost loans. The National Union of Students (NUS) argues that sky-high rent prices are resulting in the “social cleansing of working-class students from education”.

And although students in the South of England might feel that they have been hit the hardest by rising rent prices, the issue is not limited to London. 

Gordon Maloney, former NUS Scotland president and an active member of the Living Rent Campaign, which is calling for rent controls in Scotland, said that despite free tuition, Scottish students are also suffering the effects of rising rent prices. 

“In parts of Edinburgh in particular, rents have been going up by as much as 10 per cent a year, and student support isn’t anywhere near keeping up with that,” he said.

According to the National Association of Student Money Advisers (NASMA), the root of the problem lies in higher education’s having become “more corporate” and universities more competitive. This trend has led to halls that were once owned by universities being let out to external companies. 

The Bilfinger GVA study highlights this, showing that the private rental market owns by far the largest share of term-time student accommodation, catering for 49 per cent of students. 

On top of this, NASMA argues that the pressure on universities to win over students with lavish accommodation has resulted in the creation of more high-end housing that is far out of the average student’s price range. 

Kate Chapman of Collegiate Student Accommodation, which provides “luxury” accommodation including properties equipped with gyms and cinemas, said that the company was developed because there was a “demand for higher quality accommodation in the student sector”.  

However, a recent study conducted by the student housing charity Unipol argues that most students are not seeking luxury and that they should be directly included in planning processes to ensure that their needs are met.

“The authors of this report know of no evidence that students want studio flats – and certainly not 14 per cent of students, which would mirror the level of purpose-built stock in London. This is a developers’ and not a consumers’ agenda,” the report states.

Ms Chapman agreed that there was a gap in the market for cheaper, quality student housing but said that without external funding there was little chance of this materialising. However, she added that Collegiate intended to introduce a charitable fund later this year that will offer successful applicants a bursary to help with living costs. 

Driven to consider study abroad?

But have increases in the cost of housing, especially when considered in light of the rise in tuition fees, pushed UK school-leavers to look at universities further afield? A recent survey undertaken by the British Council found that the number of young Britons considering studying abroad has soared in recent years, with almost 60 per cent of those who did claiming to have been motivated by the increase in fees in the UK.

Jamie Dunn, advising and marketing director of the Fulbright UK-US exchange programme, said that the temptation of scholarships in US universities might be hard to resist.

British student Harry Edwards, who is studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that the rising cost of accommodation was a factor in his decision to study in the US.

“The rising cost of getting a degree in the UK was definitely a factor. I paid more attention to rising tuition, but rising living costs were also important, especially when you can’t even get a student loan that covers all of your living costs,” he said.

Although he shares a dormitory in the US, he pays the equivalent of £135 a week, which is not unlike the price of student housing in the UK. But he has scholarships in place to assist with tuition fees, so he believes that he will leave with less debt than his friends back home.

Gemma Collins from Blackpool, who is studying at Harvard University, pays £4,000 a year for room and board. 

She claimed that while it was not the main factor, the cost of higher education in the UK did come into consideration when she was deliberating over where to study. She described her living situation as “amazing” and said that the standard of accommodation offered in the US was “not comparable” to that in the UK. 

However, she said that studying in the US should not be thought a quick fix for British students struggling to make ends meet in the UK because not every institution will be cheaper.

Rob Ellis, chair of NASMA, warned students that housing in the US could be just as expensive as it is in the UK and that it was important to remember the quality of UK universities.

And English literature graduate Louise Clark argued that her experience of living in student accommodation in Boston made student halls in the UK look like paradise.

“I was paying more money for a shared room in a small apartment on campus in Boston than you would for a spacious one-bedroom student hall even in London,” she said. “Living in a city is expensive, and it is important to look at things on a greater scale outside of the UK.”

However, with the NUS stating that “the rent in London for students is more than 100 per cent of the maximum loan and grant available”, the number of students crossing the Atlantic or venturing elsewhere in Europe to gain a degree could continue to grow.

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Print headline: Can’t pay, won’t stay? Rising rents hit students

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