INFRASTRUCTURE

Student housing unaffordability: 6 considerations for UK universities

SOURCE: Shutterstock
Affordable student housing remains a major issue in university education.

When it comes to university education, a pain point most commonly cited is finding safe and affordable student housing. 

And while big-picture trends point to the rise of virtual alternatives to the traditional campus education, by and large, the numbers tell a different story. Even the very real prospect of rising rents and exorbitant tuition fees have not put a dent in the number of students leaving home to study.

In the UK, research last year by student housing charity Unipol and the National Union of Students (NUS) found a disproportionate rise in student housing rents, even as the government said it had increased support for living costs.

At the start of this decade, the average rental bill made up just over half the maximum available cash from student loan. 

That number has now risen to 73 percent. And still it continues to rise. Today, students can expect to pay something like £6,400 a year for a room. In London, that figure rises even further to nearly £8,900. 

The private rental market doesn’t really offer cheaper or better alternatives. In fact, the NUS in its annual surveys would often find several examples of expensive and unsafe properties, as well as unscrupulous landlords charging exorbitant rates for crummy digs.

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An unsustainable model

This has done nothing to deter student mobility. The prospect of going to university remains synonymous with leaving home, something four out of every five students do every year across the country. 

UK students are more likely than almost all of their international equivalents to study far from home. In the 2017-18 academic year, over 80 percent left home for study, with 48 percent of them living in purpose-built halls and 52 percent entering the private rental market. 

student housing
Students have to pay up to £8,900 for a room in London. Source: Shutterstock

There are benefits to on-campus living, of course; according to a recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), those who live in student housing can expect better outcomes from their higher education experience.

Commuter students, the study says, “do not always have such rounded and fulfilling experiences as other students, and they sometimes do not benefit from their higher education as much as those students who reside at university.”

In its current form, this residential arrangement is unsustainable. But as it looks more likely than ever that British universities will retain this model, there are areas for reform the country’s universities can look into.

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This is outlined by Reverend Professor William Whyte in a report released recently by HEPI, and sponsored by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP), the UK’s leading provider of on-campus residential and academic accommodation infrastructure.

Titled, “Somewhere to live: Why British students study away from home – and why it matters”, the report looked at the historical beginnings of the residential university and raises questions on the nature and purpose of the model today. 

The objective of the report, according to its author Professor Whyte, is to address the real reasons for retaining such a model and how this might develop.

The Professor of Social and Architectural History and fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, also offers some useful insight to UK institutions on how they might address the model’s sustainability, especially with regards to student wellbeing, in the nearer term.

Toward’s that end, the report offers the following six key considerations for British universities:

#1: Appropriate information

“Although there are some examples of good practice, universities as a whole must do better at providing appropriate information about accommodation to prospective students,” Professor Whyte writes.

“This means offering accurate details about the true cost of living and the real conditions in which students will live. 

“It means a willingness to publish the range of buildings and locations in which students are likely to find a home and an openness to revealing the costs of travel for those who live further away.”

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#2: Pastoral support

Professor Whyte said universities should think about ways to integrate commuter students better to prevent them falling by the wayside and losing out to those in student housing. 

He said this will likely involve timetable changes to accommodate them, and a better way of informing them about events. It may also involve physical adaptations such as providing them spaces to work and relax while on campus.

“Even the acquisition of a locker can be transformative,” he said.

student housing
Oftentimes, those who don’t live in student housing feel disconnected from the institution and other student communities. Source: Shutterstock

He also urged universities to be more proactive in providing support for students living in private rental accommodation.

“Many report a lack of sustained pastoral help and an absence of useful information about choosing a house or dealing with landlords.

“Students living in university accommodation can also slip through the cracks. Especially in their first year, they need sustained support and help to negotiate the transition from home to adult life.”

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#3: Accommodation design

Housing design matters greatly to how well a student functions, both academically and socially.

Professor Whyte said a student’s living space should account for how much of an impact it can have on their mental health and wellbeing, as well as on their grades.

“There has been an over-emphasis on cellular accommodation and an under-appreciation of the need for communal and shared space,” he said.

“There is also a need to consult students more fully as part of the design process. At present students’ voices are often ignored and their experiences disregarded.

“Their expertise and their interests should not be discounted any longer.”

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#4: Tackling the unsustainable rise in rents

“The cost of living is a growing problem for students, yet it is one that has not been fully acknowledged by government or the universities,” Professor Whyte said.

“A key element in this is the rapid increase in accommodation costs. Government should now consider shouldering the burden of providing greater maintenance support. 

“But, by the same token, providers should explore other models of finance which do not require rents to rise so precipitously.”

He said universities should “think hard” about how they choose their student housing partners and how this relationship can offer less expensive options for students. 

“There is a need for more inexpensive accommodation and an increasing lack of low-cost rooms which needs to be addressed.”

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#5: Impact on community

Student accommodation is one of the big points of contention between universities and the wider community, Professor Whyte said.

Issues such as student behaviour and student privilege contribute to the growing resentment that distances the student from the community they live among. But universities can play a part, he said.

“Universities should take seriously their civic duties by exploring how their resources can be shared, how their students can be encouraged to engage in positive encounters with the local community and how both the planning and design of accommodation can overcome any sense of separation between the institution and the world around it.”

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#6: Revisiting the nature & purpose of student housing

The most important consideration of all, Professor Whyte said, is for stakeholders to review the purpose and benefits of students leaving home to attend university. 

He noted that once a privilege for the elite, residential university life has now opened up to 50 percent of those who can afford higher education. But what of those who cannot attend university or those who cannot afford to leave home for further study, he asked.

“If travel is a good in itself and if the evidence suggests that there is a measurable ‘migration premium’, then how should we support these groups?

“It was once thought that residence would be an education in itself, creating community and offering opportunities to enculturate undergraduates, affecting them even more effectively than any formal teaching. 

“Do we still believe this? I suspect not. But if not, what purpose does the residential model serve? If this document provokes a debate about that, it will have served its purpose.”