“Rotten deal” for students in pandemic – my comment for the FT

A new report from Save The Student has found that almost £1bn has been wasted on unused university accommodation this year. Iona commented on this for the FT yesterday and goes into more detail about why students have had such a “rotten deal” during the pandemic…

I was quoted on the Financial Times website yesterday in a story about the sheer cost of unused university accommodation falling on thousands students – and parents – across the country. It said:

“Almost £1bn has been ploughed into rent on unused university accommodation this academic year, according to a nationwide survey which will reinforce concerns about students and their parents wasting money on housing in the pandemic. Half of students polled by finance website SaveTheStudent said they struggled with rent. The survey, which covered 1,355 university students in late January, also found that stress affected the health of two out of three students and the studies of half.”

I said:

“Students have frankly had a rotten deal during the pandemic. This research highlights a callous, petty and exploitative attitude when it comes to housing within too many universities and private accommodation providers.”

The cost of accommodation was already far too high even when students were living in it. The average student spends more than three quarters of their maintenance loan on rent alone. But charging the full whack when students aren’t required at all on campus and cannot travel away from their family home is shameful.

The problem is that we now have such a vast tapestry of individual and private interests in the student housing sector, with their business models fuelled by maintenance loans. Student accommodation has become such a big money-spinner, underpinned by iron-clad contracts that clearly never allowed for the possibility of a pandemic. So the decision on whether to do the right thing has become a voluntary one. Students had no legal comeback, and universities have very little power over these outside parties.

Shutting the stable door

A potential future remedy is coming through in Scotland with the introduction of notice-to-leave periods, which gives students the right to leave accommodation if they have good reason and can give 28 days notice. This should now be standard across the UK, even if it’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

We’ve also seen a £20m hardship fund introduced in England for students facing problems as a result of this situation. But that won’t cover the tens of millions taken from students (and their parents) for accommodation that has been barely used and is surplus to requirements for the foreseeable future.

I don’t understand why the government didn’t legally enforce refunds on all unused accommodation, given how much money has been spent on exceptional aid for businesses during this time. Students should have received their money back when they asked for it, and providers and landlords should have been compensated for lost income, as has happened in most other sectors.

Students’ financial rights are not optional and expendable, and they don’t come below those of private companies, landlords or universities. But sadly, that’s not the message that’s been sent to young people and this risks building up serious resentment- even disenfranchisement – in the future.

Some universities and accommodation firms have done the right thing. But this shouldn’t be a matter of discretion: it should be par for the course. Students will not forget the price they’ve paid over this period, both in monetary and mental terms. We need to take far better care of our young people or else, don’t be surprised if they seek political and financial retribution further down the road.

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