In a letter to the Office for Students this month, universities minister Michelle Donelan said she sought “to encourage providers and accommodation providers to review their accommodation policies to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart”.
With most student accommodation scarcely used this side of Christmas, universities now face an onslaught of petitions and frustration from out-of-pocket students seeking rebates. A quick scan of student newspapers shows the scale of frustration. The fix, however, is far harder to identify.
The student accommodation sector is a disparate ecosystem of privately-owned houses of multiple occupancies (HMO), private purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) and university halls. The student accommodation sector includes approximately 1.2 million student renters, according to a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi). University-owned accommodation accounts for just 28% of this marketplace – a similar share resides in PBSA, with a whopping 45% of students in an HMO of one kind or another.
More than seven in 10 students live in properties outside of the control of their institutions. Universities cannot compel landlords to offer refunds, so “encourage” and “review” are about all senior leaders can usefully do. Meanwhile, the pressure on universities grows.
A separate 2019 Hepi survey revealed that the cost of living was a higher priority for undergraduates than tuition fees – six in 10 said rent and bills were their biggest concern, versus two in 10 that cited tuition fees. A recent NUS survey suggests two-thirds of students fear they will struggle to cover their rents this term.
The 2020 Hepi report, which relied on statistics from charity Unipol Student Homes, said average annual rents for a purpose-built student room (£6,366) accounts for 73% of the maximum student loan outside London, leaving only £2,349 annually for living costs. This proportion is up from 58% six years earlier. As a result of this upward trend, rent rebates are more expensive than ever.
The College and University Business Officers (CUBO) – the professional association for commercial and campus services professionals in higher and further education – has seen membership and calls for support surge during the pandemic, driven by university managers seeking assistance with the challenge presented by the pandemic. CUBO now supports over 650 said managers and ran 45 online support sessions between June and December 2020.
Julie Barker, non-executive director at CUBO, said the organisation urges universities and private landlords to engage “for the best outcomes for students”.
It’s too early to say what will come of them but universities are talking to accommodation providers about what support can be offered to students
– Julie Barker, CUBO
The deals and agreements that govern the relationships between universities and nominated PBSA providers vary dramatically – “no two are quite the same”, Barker says – and resolving the financial implications of rent waivers will fall to piecemeal agreements. Some are annual agreements, but others last up to “40 or 45 years”, which significantly weaken the chance universities in the short term can pressure providers to waive rents.
“Those conversations are happening,” Barker confirms – universities are trying to push for a financial settlement for students. “It’s too early to say what will come of them but universities are talking to accommodation providers about what support can be offered to students.”
Although universities can implore individual landlords to drop rents this term, the HMO owners may recoup the cost of rebates from next year’s students.
These incontrovertible realities are what led the University of Salford to launch its ambitious rent support scheme. It is a huge package of support from the university to alleviate the needs of students and providers.
Salford University has unveiled a fund to support students living in halls and privately owned accommodation with rent. The university will make a payment on behalf of students living in Campus Living Villages (CLV) accommodation, its first-year halls partner. CLV paused rent due in mid-January and will adjust its ongoing rents “to reflect the university’s contribution”, the university said. Salford students also live in IQ and Unite residences, and the university is engaging with those providers to see what support can be offered.
The university will be making payments of between £1000 to £1200 per student. Using figures taken from the CLV websites, the grants will cover rent for students in the three Salford partner halls for an estimated seven-to-10-week period from January. Like many other private hall providers, CLV will continue to charge rent during this lockdown. For students renting private halls or private housing this semester, up to £1000 is available from the Salford assistance fund.
It is a sizeable financial undertaking and Salford, like other universities, has other costs to cover.
John McCarthy, University of Salford interim director of student success, administration and support services, said: “I think it’s the right solution to take because we recognise that many were told not to return to university, but some are compelled, because of their course or other reasons, to remain in halls. Our view is, it would be inequitable to refund students who have been told not to come back but not to make a contribution on behalf of those students who are also in halls.”
Salford has an approximate 25% occupancy rate across its partner halls – many on healthcare courses, others shielding or unable to return home. “Is this a time, when providers have reaped the benefit while the sun has shone, to look supportively at students now that we have cloudier days?” McCarthy asks. “I think it’s only right they look to try and provide some support, where they can. But every provider and landlord is in a different place financially, and it is hard to comment on individual cases. For some landlords, their property is their livelihood or their pension.”
He agrees that “universities will look afresh at some relationships” with PBSA providers, but just to re-evaluate the financial relationship. “The priorities will be: is there 24/7 welfare support and wrap-around care? What are those extra support functions that have been put in place, particularly a time of crisis? I think universities have been doing that to a certain extent anyway, but the pandemic has accelerated that.”
The pandemic has seemingly affected almost every aspect of higher education, accelerating changes many felt were overdue: remote working, online teaching and much more. Perhaps reform to the student residential model will be added to that list.