University has swung back into being something of a very considered decision. While this is a brilliantly wonderful in the arena of 17-19 year olds coming straight out of school and realising that higher education isn't the be all and end all of the paths to successful futures, for those that desperately want to further their studies, the prospect of coming out with around £27k worth of debt as standard just from tuition fees is sobering. When you add the cost of living, university extras, and compound interest on to that you're looking at staggering amounts of debt for young people to start off their adult life with.
And guess what? It actually does count towards getting a mortgage.
Tuition fees are a large part of that debt, but they're fixed - for the foreseeable future, at least. They're not going to jump around wildly, or get cut anytime soon. We've begrudgingly accepted this.
Rent, on the other hand. Rent is a ridiculous, hideous joke.
And it's just getting worse.
An article in Dazed and Confused this past week detailed how students in London are staging a strike. Rent refusal, if you will. Protesting the soaring cost of student accommodation, often substandard, that is barely covered - if covered at all - by the maintenance loan. Where rents in zone 3 can hit £165 per week for a room and kitchen, and £209.70 as reported by D&C in the centre, it's understandable. Compulsory work to cover the cost of keeping a roof over your head while dealing with the study demands of any degree, plus the extra-curriculars now subtextually required for employment after graduation is not something that students should be subjected to. And people wonder why university students are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
The worst part is, it's not just London. Student accommodation the length and breadth of the United Kingdom is soaring rapidly, regardless of the city or the current situation of the housing market. Students are routinely expected to cough up around or over £126 per week for a room, bathroom and kitchen access in multiple occupancy flats in their first year. While this does often include perks like internet access, insurance and utilities, the rooms themselves are often showing signs of wear varying from scuffed furniture to broken appliances and mattresses you wouldn't want to touch.
I appreciate that students have a bad reputation for destroying or having a blatant disregard for things that are not 'theirs', but £126pw for a room that hasn't been cleaned before arrival is quite a grim thing to be greeted by. To have appliances that are quite possibly nearly as old as the students themselves, or have at least suffered through 'daily' use at least six times over for however many years, stood in kitchens that don't exactly accommodate size-wise for the number of people in the flat. Students are very often blamed for damage that was already there, or occurred through general use of an over-worked product. It's a few that sully the image for the majority.
It's the private sector that seem to be running riot in regards to student accommodation. I've been told of situations where landlords are blatantly taking advantage of the students in their properties, putting rooms up for rent that are not suitable for living, and ignoring problems when tenants report them. Then you start looking at the cost.
In my city, prices can vary anywhere from £50 a week to £200. Sometimes over £200. Often for a tenancy length of 48 to 50 weeks of the year. Sometimes the full 52. For student accommodation. Student accommodation that the student probably isn't even going to be accommodating for the periods over Christmas and Easter holidays, and the best part of summer.
The average maximum maintenance loan you can apply for (2015) is £5,740 if you are living away from home and studying outside of London - if you're in London they do take into account the raised cost of living, marginally, so students get more accordingly. The maintenance loan is optional, and means tested in regards to your parental/household income, which means that for many students who have a combined household income of £42,620 or more, they're very unlikely to see that amount of money. This has been increased for the 2016 intake as outlined on the student finance website, but the point still stands.
Once the maths is done, you start to see where things begin to look bleak for the student population. Taking figures from my own University's accommodation (they may vary but it's a pretty good standard): £126 a week for an ensuite room in a multiple occupancy flat for first year, on a tenancy of 42 weeks sets you back £5,294.94 (making the actual room worth £126.07). This is the average type of accommodation available, most first year students are allocated a room in either 6-person or 11-person flats.
If the student is receiving the maximum amount of maintenance available, then we end up with: £5,740 - £5,294.94 = £445.06 for the 2012-2015 intake.
That's £445.06 for the entire year if the student solely uses their maintenance loan to cover the cost of their accommodation and living expenses. Bearing in mind that most students won't be seeing the full £5,740 deposited into their accounts over the installments, the amount reduces to the point where it doesn't even cover the cost of their accommodation.
On top of that, students will worry about the cost of books - and depending on the course studied this can range from free/very low cost to slightly financially crippling (both of my sisters studied/study law, and I've seen the cost of those books). Sometimes it's not an option to rent books from the library if the course intake is large, or buy them second hand if the publication turnover is fast. It's a necessary expense. Then there's the general cost of living: adjusting to food shopping and the cost of trying to stay healthy; sports teams or societies the student may want to join; and general socialising. Students are expected to live on £445 a year or less and become well-rounded 'employable' people.
It's sobering when you think that not all students are able to ask their parents for supplementary hand-outs, or given grants or bursaries because they're treading the line but not enough to be considered 'low-income'. Balancing employment around studies becomes a necessity.
Yet it's the private sector that really starts - for want of a better phrase - to take the piss.
The search for second year housing starts in November, usually. Landlords advertise their 'best' deals and packages to snap up the students fresh into university, where the majority know very little about the market in the city they've moved to, average room prices, or what to expect. Many landlords exploit this student naiivity, putting rental values far above the worth of the room, downplaying structural issues of the property, or pressuring students into feeling like they have to sign for the property because they went to view it. Sometimes there are added hidden agency fees, or purposefully obscure contracts. But accommodation is a necessity and students are desperate to have one less massively worrying issue off their shoulders.
Among my peers, there is very much a sense of 'you get what you pay for' in regards to accommodation - which runs in pretty much every aspect of the service sector - cheap accommodation is usually cheap for a reason. The £50pw rooms are usually tiny, in an undesirable location, bills excluded. They're not 'bargains' - they're rooms that landlords have shoehorned into houses to squeeze that last bit of space they can into something that makes money. But what if that room is all the student can afford to make sure they can survive for the year, or so that they don't have to work around their studies?
On the other hand, more expensive accommodation isn't necessarily worth the price. I conducted a "very scientific" twitter poll where 80% of those who voted said that their accommodation isn't worth what they're paying for it. Reasons cited included: terrible landlords; small bedrooms and inadequate kitchen sizes for the number of occupants; damp and structural issues. The cities and prices varied for those who wanted to disclose, but the general concensus was a resounding 'no, not on your life'. But the need for somewhere to live for the university year means that students settle for overpriced accommodation because they are, quite simply, forced to.
Dazed and Confused quoted the head of UCL's estates dismissing the extortionate London rates as a "fact of life", and I think that a lot of other accommodation heads, or student city landlord giants think the same way. Those who are controlling the prices of accommodation - because in cities where there are a few landlords who own the majority of private student accommodation, do control prices - are completely out of touch with the general public, and take advantage of students who physically have nowhere else to go in some cases. Even university letting agents do more to facilitate than regulate - with some being so difficult to deal with I'm surprised they're in business.
When I was chatting with my dad about this whole student house pricing circus, he raised a very interesting point - that the increasing number of international student intake at universities is helping landlords justify these lofty rental rates. It isn't the fault of the international students at all, more the fact that landlords are taking advantage of them being geographically less aware. To clarify, when I explained my home city on my year abroad, or which university I was on exchange from, I generally had to do so in relation to London or other major football cities. The names of UK universities may be internationally recognised, but the sort of cities those universities are in are not, and many landlords or student accommodation groups take advantage of international students not being UK savvy enough to know that London prices are not UK universal. They might not know that nearly £200pw is not a usual price for student accommodation in the north - they, like domestic students, just need somewhere to live.
On top of this, with more students that ever going to university, more student accommodation is being built with descriptions like 'boutique' and rental values starting at the top end of university halls prices. It just helps to reinforce the rise in costs - they're charging this much so I can too - rather than competition driving prices down because more students require more accommodation. It's inescapable.
And that's the crux of the matter. Providers of private accommodation are allowed to get away with overpricing substandard digs, or elevating the cost of decent accommodation so drastically because the need for it forces students to settle. As far as I'm aware, there isn't a country-wide regulatory board for private landlords that assesses rent values, or sets a standard price, and I'm not even sure how one could be implemented... But I know that the situation is dire enough that raising the amount of maintenance students receive is a sticking plaster on a horrific, gaping wound.