Two extremes of student accommodation have been in the headlines recently: a super luxury block on Mayfair that costs £21k a month, and a Goldsmiths student who saves money by commuting to lectures from Gdansk. But for your average studier of economics or biology knocking back watered down pints in the union bar, who doesn't have endless funds or the inclination to spend every week buckling up on Ryanair, what's the reality of living in London?
Nona Buckley-Irvine, General Secretary at LSE's student union, told us that accommodation costs are making it hard for London universities to recruit students outside of the capital and south east. "Research conducted by NEON shows that 40% of students are more likely to study at home or close to home due to rising tuition fees and accommodation costs," she says.
Ali Milani, President of the Union of Brunel Students, explains that "when a student's loan or grant kicks in, the vast chunk of that income stream goes to accommodation. That leaves students being forced to work 15 or 20 hours a week to pay for everything else".
Both Nona and Ali accuse universities of treating student accommodation as a commercial venture, an opportunity to create profit or to outsource to private providers so universities don't have to bear the costs. "The reason universities can charge so much is that there’s no alternative," says Ali. "If there’s a student that’s coming from Cornwall to study at Brunel or Goldsmiths or LSE, the universities often charge a price that they know they can because the students have no choice."
Brunel and LSE, obviously, dispute this claim. An LSE spokesperson told us: "Living in halls of residence is a safe, competitively priced and well-regulated option for many students who want to study at LSE. Rents are reviewed annually in line with the cost of running each hall, the demand for places and the rental levels locally. They are discussed at the School’s Finance Committee and are approved by the School’s Council — both bodies have student representatives on them."
Brunel also defended its position on costs. Chief Operating Officer at Brunel University, Paul Thomas, said: "We will always set our hall fees with the intention of providing value for money for the students and the university, which has invested more than £100m into residential stock over the past 10 years. Our research this year shows our fees are well below average market rates and remain among the lowest of any Higher Education Institute in the region. They also compare very favourably with the private rental sector within the local area."
Ali points out that it's only natural Brunel will compare favourably with other London universities, since it's based in Uxbridge rather than central London. Brunel hall costs range between £3,952 and £5,035 a year for term time (postgraduates have to pay extra for over the summer). From a quick flick through Zoopla, we found that it's possible to rent a three bedroom house in Uxbridge for the full year for around £5,600 per person or a four bedroom house for £4,800 per person; though that's without bills.
On costs at LSE, Nona says "in three years the price of a room in Southwark soared from £143.50 to over £190. We successfully lobbied for the price of shared rooms to be frozen but disappointingly all other rooms increased". The LSE spokesperson told us that "the average price for a single room in LSE student accommodation is £199 per week and £213 for en-suite. Some of these prices are inclusive of food. This price is below 80% of the market rent for a room, which is approximately £270 a week. In total, over 50% of LSE’s total residential spaces fall below this 80% level."
One of the primary arguments from universities seems to be that halls offer a good deal compared with the local market. The talk of 80% of local market rates is taken from government policy. The definition of 'affordable housing' was changed a few years ago to mean councils and housing associations can (and may be required to) charge up to 80% of what the private sector can command. This is, as we have pointed out on many occasions, not what most people think of as 'affordable' housing; particularly not on a student budget.
Should universities be competing with the local market at all, or should they treat their halls like social housing? Or, as government funding cuts squeeze universities further, are they justified in turning to accommodation to earn more money out of their students? LSE cites an 84% satisfaction rating for its managed halls as evidence that students don't mind.
The unions, understandably, say that students do mind. Nona tells us "the price of renting halls often outstrips the amount of loan and grant that home students receive, violating the principle set by Shelter that housing should constitute no more than 30% of your monthly expenditure. The risks attached to this are that universities, particularly London universities in central locations, will become increasingly more elite. In London the cost of living poses far more of a risk than tuition fees because students simply can't afford it."