Soaring University rents: the sky-high cost of a place to sleep

With rents rising by more than the rate of inflation, sixth formers are thinking twice about going to university. Kitty Donaldson and Emma Sword report
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The Independent Online

Mark and Elaine Finch are 18-year-old twins who live near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, an area that traditionally sends relatively few young people into higher education. Neither of their parents went to university; the twins have the opportunity to go because they are bright and are predicted to get good enough A-level grades.

They are exactly the kind of people that the Government needs to have staying on in education if Tony Blair is to meet his target of 50 per cent of under-30s going to university. Mark has a conditional offer of a place to study computer science at Sheffield University. But with rising rents on university campuses, he is worried that he won't be able to make ends meet. Instead of a summer holiday on the beach in Ibiza, he is up at 4am packing potatoes in a factory near Doncaster to enable him to pay rent and other fees next term.

"If things get too bad, I might not be able to live in university accommodation. I might have to make the hour-and-a-half commute every morning instead," he says.

His twin sister has been put off university altogether because of concern about the cost and her reluctance to be saddled with huge debts after her degree. "Although my A-level predictions are good, and I want to go into the fashion industry where a qualification in textiles would be handy, I've decided to press ahead on my own," she says. "I simply can't afford it."

They are just two statistics out of the thousands of school- leavers contemplating their futures. But their concerns are probably pretty representative. Many aspiring students may be worried about paying the tuition fee of £1,075 this autumn. But a bigger worry is the cost of rent. University residence charges are rising.

A new survey from the National Union of Students shows prices of university accommodation nationally have risen by 3.9 per cent since last year, from an average of £54.72 a week to £56.85, higher than the increase in the rate of inflation, which stands at 2.4 per cent, and the increase in the student loan. For self-catering accommodation, the rises have been higher – 8.1 per cent for single rooms and 6.5 per cent for en-suite provision. In London, things are worse. The London School of Economics, which has the highest rents in the UK, charges £87.48 for a self-catered single room. That is almost £10 above the inner- London average.

"Things are getting worse for students," says Claire Kober, the union's Vice-President for welfare. "Our research shows that accommodation makes up 80 per cent of student's income. We think it's making students think twice about studying away from home. They would rather live with their parents to keep costs down."

At Sheffield University, Mark could find himself paying up to £66.84, which is the most the university charges for a single room with no food. If he wants an en-suite bathroom and three meals, he will be charged £89.75. Regional variations mean students are increasingly taking rent into account when deciding which university to apply to.

At Staffordshire University, a room with no meals can cost as little as £39 a week, whereas at Buckingham, self-catered rooms range from £57 to £106. Scottish universities vary, too. A self-catered room at Edinburgh University will cost you up to £63 per week, but at St Andrews, the price of similar accommodation can be as low £33.88.

Another factor that has agitated student unions is the privatisation of university halls of residence, whereby private companies take over their management. That has been an increasing trend since the mid-Nineties, when the Higher Education Funding Council began to urge universities to make realistic charges for rent and food. Subsidies were phased out and universities turned to companies that had the money to renovate ageing halls in return for a steady income stream in student rents.

There is no evidence that this trend has pushed up prices, but some students unions believe this may have happened. At its annual conference, the NUS passed a motion opposing privatisation. According to Ms Kober, students are also worried that they may have less say in the fixing of rents if companies are managing accommodation. "At least if the university is managing halls, the students have an avenue for making their voices heard," she says.

The student union at Sheffield has threatened rent strikes as a negotiating tool in debates with the university over a public/private scheme for residential blocks. "The union opposes the privatisation because it will push rents up to unaffordable levels," says Rob Forbes, president of the union. "It will also lead to a reduction in the services and pastoral care provided. The university should put people before profit."

The private companies, needless to say, argue they are instrumental in improving facilities and freeing up university funds that can be spent on facilities such as libraries and sport. Unite, one such company, says its size enables it to get good deals for electricity and security for students, for example, in providing swipe-card access and wardens in halls of residence. "We have students at the forefront of our mind because they're our customers," says Tabitha Smith, spokeswoman of Unite. "If we don't keep them happy, we lose them."

Meanwhile, Mark Finch has been busy putting aside somehard-earned pounds for his university career, while his sister Elaine has been busy looking for a job.

Mark appears to be in good company; applications for computer science have risen by 11.1 per cent this year. So, despite rent increases, students still want to go to college and university. Altogether, Ucas applications are up 4,232 this year.

Why does Mark want a degree? "There's a far better chance of getting a job that is better paid, and it's a chance to get to know new people," he says. Is it worth the financial sacrifice? "Probably," he grins.

Kitty Donaldson has just completed her second year at Durham University; Emma Sword will start at Sheffield University this October.