Charging disabled students more for accessible accommodation is “a tax on disability” and must end, the universities minister has told industry leaders.
In a recorded message to the Student Accommodation Conference in Salford, Chris Skidmore condemned the practice of charging premium rates for accessible rooms and called on student accommodation chiefs to improve provision for disabled students.
Describing the practice as “tantamount to a tax on disability”, Mr Skidmore said it was one of the most worrying practices revealed to him by a 2019 student accommodation sector summit.
If disabled students are forced to pay premium prices for suitable rooms, this is tantamount to a tax on disability, and cannot be allowed to continue
– Chris Skidmore
The summit – which drew together figures from students’ groups, sector bodies, universities and PBSA providers and regulators – aimed to chart a way forward for the new decade, the minister said.
Mr Skidmore called on the sector to build a wider range of accessible accommodation, adding: “It is not only wheelchair users who require accessible rooms, and accommodation developers need to ensure that all social spaces, and not just bedrooms and bathrooms are accessible for all types of students.”
In a wide-ranging address, the universities minister said the government also expected the sector to deliver new student accommodation on time and called on PBSA suppliers to improve communication with universities in the event of construction delays.
The conference was reminded of the importance of fire safety and the minister said government was looking to the sector to “step up” protections and procedures in the light of the Bolton fire in November last year. He praised staff at King’s College London for relocating hundreds of students from an accommodation block due to fire safety concerns.
The minister said he was awaiting the latest updates to the accommodation codes from Unipol and Universities UK, but added he wanted “to consider not only what we can do to strengthen compliance with them, but also to hit developers hard in the pocket if they refuse to seek code accreditation”.
Consultation with students
Mr Skidmore recommended the sector change its design process to include “meaningful consultation with students”. He said students should be consulted on rent structures and new projects “to ensure they have the right mix of rooms and spaces for their specific student population”.
A recent report from University Partnerships Programme (UPP) and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) said the student residential model needed reform. The report warned that the rising cost of living, impact on local communities, and design of accommodation has weakened the present model.
The Reverend Prof William Whyte, professor of social and architectural history and the report’s author, said there was still strong demand for student accommodation, but added the report “raises questions about the nature and purposes of that model today”.
“There has been an over-emphasis on cellular accommodation and an under-appreciation of the need for communal and shared space,” the Hepi report noted, which might have a detrimental effect on student mental health and wellbeing.
A 2018 Unipol report found there had been a 30% reduction in the number of self-catered student halls with shared facilities since 2012/13, and a 123% increase in studio apartments.
According to joint research by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Unipol, student rents have soared in the last decade. In 2010, students spent just over half their loans and grants on rent, but that percentage has increased to nearly three-quarters.
The increasing cost of student accommodation was raised by NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim in an interview with University Business this month.
“Rent should be capped in halls because there are cases now when a maintenance loan doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of accommodation,” Ms Ibrahim said, adding: “I think the biggest issue is private providers building around campuses that have agreements with universities, which then advertise that hall to their students. If student finance doesn’t cover the cost of the student halls, the university should not be advertising it.”
Read more: Profile: Zamzam Ibrahim, NUS president
The union leader from Bolton talks to University Business about reforming the NUS, sexual harassment and her style of leadership