Universities, which now include the old polytechnics, are expanding rapidly. Many had planned to take on several hundred extra students this year, even before the unexpectedly high number of A-level passes.
Building programmes for additional halls of residence will meet much of the increased demand. Elsewhere, several universities have reached agreements with local authorities to take over premises that are difficult to let, including tower blocks. Even so, many students will have to rely on the private sector.
Accommodation accounts for about three-quarters of student outlays. The National Union of Students calculates that a reduction of 2 per cent in rents could lead to an increase of 20 per cent in spending power. 'The recession is good news for us,' says Jonathan Chandler, accommodation services manager for the University of Greenwich, formerly Thames Polytechnic. 'There is a lot available, and prices are not going up. Sometimes they are actually going down.'
A spokeswoman for the University of Kent reported that 'everybody in Canterbury is phoning up to offer rooms'. Manchester, Milton Keynes and Leicester also reported an influx of rooms, flats and houses.
Laura Matthews of the NUS said: 'Prices rise from pounds 30 to pounds 60, almost in a direct radius going into London.' For a one- third share in a furnished house a student should pay no more than pounds 30 to pounds 35 in Birmingham or Manchester, or pounds 35 to pounds 40 in Oxford or Canterbury. In London prices are still higher at pounds 40 to pounds 60.
The situation has improved for students since 1990. Even so, the University College of Wales, in Aberystwyth, was so stuck for accommodation last year that it asked all lecturers to consider taking in students.
Universities employ their own accommodation officers, who iron out most of the problems for the first-time tenant. Private sector accommodation agencies can be less reliable, as well as charging high fees. Many breach the Accommodation Agencies Act of 1953 by making illegal charges to register an individual. Legally they may only charge the tenant once a tenancy is arranged.
John Fox, principal trading standards officer for Leicestershire County Council, warned: 'There is sometimes confusion between accommodation agencies, estate agents and mortgage brokers. Some advertise flats for rent, then when they are viewed they try to get the person to sign the forms to buy them, offering a mortgage and everything else.'
With the assured shorthold tenancies that are almost invariably now used by landlords, a tenant may also be charged a 'premium' to secure the contract. However, this is unusual in the current market. It is reasonable for a landlord to ask for a deposit, usually pounds 100, or a month's rent. This should be returnable when the accommodation is vacated. But if tenant and landlord are in dispute over breakages or damage, it can be difficult to recoup a deposit.
The NUS advises students to ensure that they have an agreed inventory of items, and to note the condition of the property. Gerard McKenna, assistant registrar at the University of Manchester, said: 'If students come to us we will try to intervene and negotiate. Some students try to pre-empt this by not paying the last month's rent, but they are, strictly, out of order.'
Other pitfalls include alleged rent-fixing by groups of landlords, and sub-standard accommodation that might be a fire hazard or easily broken into. Students are advised by the NUS to make sure that their accommodation is checked by the local authority and fire and crime prevention officers.
They should look carefully at the terms of proposed agreements, and, for instance, not sign unreasonable regulations requiring them to redecorate at the end of the tenancy. They should be wary about allowing landlords a right of access, as they do not always respect privacy.
Sue Callaghan, accommodation assistant for DeMontfort University (formerly Leicester Polytechnic) said that students should think carefully before signing.
'Sometimes they panic. They think they won't get accommodation, but they will. If they sign the wrong contract, it can be difficult to get out of it.'
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