Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the government is commencing a review of tuition fees in light of a looming student debt crisis. While lower tuition fees may relieve some of the burden on the UK’s university students, opponents say that high course fees are only part of the problem. The cost of student housing has also been on the rise, with approximately 17,300 students falling behind in payments to student accommodation last year, data gathered in a Freedom of Information Act request by the Liberal Democratic Party shows. Of those, 97 were evicted or had their tenancies cancelled, more than double that of the previous year.
Spokespeople for the Lib Dems and members of the National Union of Students (NUS) are quick to point out that this 16% spike in student housing arrears comes on the heels of the government’s choice to replace maintenance grants for disadvantaged students with additional loan options in August of 2016. At the time, the NUS, Labour ministers, and others spoke out against the change, saying it would only deepen the student debt crisis and further disadvantage the country’s poorest students.
Do rising residence fees unveil a broader housing disparity?
Along with the rise in tuition fees from around £3,600 to £9,250, the Guardian reports that average annual fees at university residence halls have risen 13.6% from £4,583 in 2012-13 to £5,208 in 2016-17.
Despite being plagued by problems with quality standards and management companies, England’s student housing industry draws billions of dollars in international investment each year. One reason is the quick return and built-in demand, with a student population that renews itself every few years.
Best of all for developers, Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) falls outside of regular home zoning categories, making them exempt from “providing any contribution towards affordable housing.” They also do not have to adhere to residential building codes, making environmental and other living conditions less than a priority. Unite, the biggest student housing provider in the UK, has failed to pass six different fire safety tests administered in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire last year.
NUS data shows that rent charged by PBSAs has increased by 80% over the past 10 years, and yet the units are often:
- facing brick walls, and/or
- in some state of disrepair.
Leaking pipes, pest infestations, malfunctioning equipment, and even unfinished properties are now common for the working-class university student. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury apartments are appearing in some university cities, with exclusive clubs, well-equipped study lounges, and stylishly-outfitted living quarters.
While regular flat shares and residence halls cost around £370 per month, the luxury models cost that or more per week, as seen by small sampling:
- Bristol £266 a week
- Manchester, £296-£388 per week
- Durham, £811 a month
- Cardiff, £1,222 a month (£14,664 a year)
- London, £380 a week; £19,000 to £25,000 a year
According to reports, they are of the same basic framework as regular PBSA but with modern, high-tech facilities and CCTV to meet demand from local and international families who are willing and able to foot the bill in order to provide their child with a quiet, well-appointed, and securely monitored learning environment. The all-inclusive model is designed to keep students on-site 24/7, and serves to highlight the academic divide between the lower and mid-to-upper classes.
NUS vice-president for welfare Izzy Lenga argues that students are being priced out of accommodation – and their educations – saying that “the more luxury accommodation that is built, the less investment is put into providing students with affordable places to live.”
What Are the Consequences?
The Higher Education Policy Institute’s 2017 Student Experience Survey links learning gains to financial status, limited work hours, and quality and type of accommodation. Universities and conservative MPs are hesitant to agree there’s a problem, but advocates insist that paying for basic living expenses is a barrier to higher education for those from low-income backgrounds. Additional research shows financial worries negatively impact students’ mental health and overall quality of life.
1) Academic disadvantages
At some universities, commuters make up more than half of the undergraduates, and most others have a substantial number. Unfortunately, students who live at home are less likely to get a good degree and more likely to drop out. Commuting to school can harm attendance and limit networking opportunities like voluntarism and internships which lead to later employment, while evictions and dropouts due to financial hardship can discourage or prevent students from finishing their degree altogether.
2) Emotional stress
Study International says the majority of those from low-income backgrounds experience significant emotional stress due to financial burdens. In two student surveys,
- 71% reported being stressed and anxious about their finances,
- Half claimed mental health issues because of their financial worries, and
- 42% reported an adverse impact on relationships with friends and family
Additionally, almost half of them reported worrying whether they could afford groceries and tube fair from week to week.
3) Life-long impact
Despite the negative impact a job can have on a student’s academics, most work during term time, and nearly a quarter resort to overdrafts to cover expenses. Alarmingly, students also report participating in drug trials, gambling and adult work such as sex or sex-related activities. Upon graduation, loan recipients leave with an average £50,000 in debt. However, says NUS Extra president Shakira Martin, “rising living costs affect the poorest students the most,” forcing them to take out bigger loans and leave with an even higher debt burden – up to £57,000.
The Prime Minister has proposed lowering tuition rates so that they are proportionate with expected earnings from a given degree, but many in her own government oppose the move. Alternatives include cutting interest on student loan repayments and greater flexibility in course length (most are three years). The review, says May, will also examine the question of maintenance support, “both from government and universities.”