The National Union of Students (NUS) has strongly critiqued universities record on student accommodation in the wake of a devastating fire in Bolton.
Speaking to University Business, Eva Crossan Jory, NUS vice president (Welfare), said: “Universities have increasingly abdicated their responsibility for housing students appropriately and have not seen this expansion in private provision as their concern.”
The Cube building in Bradshawgate – which was operated privately by Valeo USL – housed students from the University of Bolton and caught fire on Friday 15 November.
We think the government has not done nearly enough to address issues of fire-safety
– Eva Crossan Jory, NUS
Ms Crossan Jory said the union awaited the results of an investigation into the Bolton fire, but added: “We think the government has not done nearly enough to address issues of fire-safety in housing more generally and high-rise blocks in particular. Universities also need to take greater responsibility in looking after students in all housing, not just the dwindling number of bedrooms they operate.”
The union was unreserved in its criticism of the government’s record on fire safety, particularly after it was revealed by The Sunday Times that 18 tower blocks accommodating students are still clad in the aluminium flammable panels used on the Grenfell Tower.
The Cube building was covered in a different cladding to Grenfell, fire officers confirmed at the time, and an investigation is under way to uncover the cause of the blaze.
The Financial Times reported that the high-pressure laminate (HPL) cladding used in Bolton is at the centre of another investigation after a fatal fire at a tower block in Camberwell in 2009, which killed six people. HPL cladding passed fire tests commissioned by the government this summer but was proved to be inadequate if used in conjunction with a flammable insulation.
The NUS said the government had failed to act on advice from its Expert Panel to audit and remove dangerous cladding from high-rise buildings. The union also said local authorities and fire services need more funding to inspect, enforce and deal with fire-safety issues.
Following the Bolton fire, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Matt Wrack said: “It’s deeply troubling to see fire spread rapidly up a building’s exterior again – a shocking indictment of the government’s shameful inaction after Grenfell.”
University Business approached the Conservative Party for comment but did not receive a response. After the fire, education secretary Gavin Williamson tweeted that he had written to universities asking them to review their procedures.
This afternoon, I have written to all university vice chancellors asking that they – and their commercial partners – review fire safety procedures and safeguards across residential, teaching & research accommodation. I have asked them to report back to me as swiftly as possible.
— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) November 16, 2019
Student accommodation providers make enormous profits, and we are concerned that in the rush to expand some may have cut corners.
The NUS said it wants action to improve the Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) sector and more oversight for “what is in its current form, a very new sector”. The body said it would ultimately like to see all student accommodation run democratically and not-for-profit.
“Student accommodation providers make enormous profits, and we are concerned that in the rush to expand some may have cut corners. We need to ensure they have not put profit first in regard to a number of issues including fire-safety, affordability, accessibility and students’ wider welfare in student accommodation,” Ms Crossan Jory said.
Universities UK (UUK) responded to the statements by the NUS and said student safety is of paramount importance to its member institutions.
A spokesperson for UUK added: “It is important that all providers – whether the accommodation is university owned and managed or run by private sector organisations – meet high standards, demonstrate value, and are accountable to students.
“UUK is hosting a round table discussion with university leaders, students and experts to explore the challenges of student accommodation provision and to identify where accountability and regulation can be strengthened.
“We cannot draw conclusions from the fire in Bolton, or the potential role cladding played, until the results of the investigation are published.”