Why the hell are UK unis so incapable of providing their students with somewhere to live?

Freshers in Manchester have been offered £100 a week to live in … Liverpool

Hello and welcome to another instalment of British universities screwing up. In today’s episode, students are living through a hellish accommodation crisis and it’s a joke.

Whatever uni year you’re in, the start of the university year is supposed to be full of Ikea trips, decorating your bedroom with carefully-selected fairy lights and tapestries, and that first ever flat dinner when you all cook together. But students around the country have literally nowhere to live, and their unis are failing to give them sufficient accommodation. It’s only a couple of weeks in to term, and it’s already happened at a load of universities already so far. So what’s exactly happening to students, and why?

Manchester freshers are being sent to live in halls in Liverpool

In Manchester, both Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan have had halls shortages. MMU is offering freshers £100 a week to live in halls in Liverpool and Huddersfield, telling students these halls elsewhere are around a “15 minute walk” from a train station, where they can then get a 40-minute train to Manchester. The £100 a week is to cover additional living and travelling expenses, to cover the 30-mile journey into Manchester. One student said: “I’ve been on the lookout for accommodation since June. I was told to wait until results day and I was expecting places to become available and some apparently did.”

They live in Staffordshire, which is also about a 40-minute train from Manchester, so said: “It would be quite pointless for me to pay however much a week to go to Liverpool. That is not the city that I was expecting to live in and it’s competently different experience for me.” MMU said “significantly more offer-holders than anticipated have been accepting and meeting the conditions of our offer.” The uni said the issue affects “around two per cent” of undergraduate freshers this year.

Earlier this month, Manchester University said it was offering £2,500 to any freshers within commuting distance to uni to switch to living at home, in an attempt to increase the number of spaces in halls. There were more than 350 students waiting for confirmation of their place in halls, which dropped down significantly to three in just a week – suggesting quite a few freshers had taken up the university on the offer. “Any remaining students will receive an offer for accommodation in Liverpool, along with £100 per week to cover travel expenses”, the uni said. It said there has been “unprecedented demand for university accommodation across the UK this year” due to pandemic A-Level results and a high number of deferred places.

‘The uncertainty has been traumatising’

Last week, Glasgow University emailed students advising them to “suspend” their studies or “withdraw” from the university if they haven’t found a place yet to live. In the city it’s a similar picture to Edinburgh, with students struggling to find accommodation over the summer, and the uni even saying there is “increasingly limited accommodation” in the city.

The email said: “If you have not yet secured accommodation in Glasgow the university is strongly advising students NOT to complete registration or enrolment or to travel to Glasgow until you have done so. […] It may be more appropriate for you to suspend your studies or withdraw.” Grace, a third year student, said she’s already paid £20,000 in tuition fees and thinks the uni’s advice of not enrolling for the year shows “no regard” toward students well-being. Layla is “hopefully” a Master’s student – “hopefully” because she’s still looking for somewhere to live. “The uncertainty has been traumatising”, she said.

Glasgow’s email

Glasgow says there has been no significant increase in student numbers and that it has increased its number of rooms available by 25 per cent this year. It says the crisis is caused by a “contraction” in the private market and that “like most urban universities, we cannot guarantee accommodation for returning students”. The university is also renting out a cinema and an actual church to teach classes in, after campus “refurbishment work” has necessitated the uni to make use of additional teaching rooms.

Why is this all happening?

One of the issues could be private landlords putting prices up. Edinburgh University students describe being in competition against hundreds of other applicants for private places to live, and being outbid by others who are offering hundreds of pounds extra in rent per month. At Edinburgh University, some students affected by this have been living in converted halls common rooms due to the city’s housing shortage.

The Edinburgh Tab spoke to several students who are sleeping in bunk beds in university accommodation blocks. In one room, five fourth years are living together in bunk beds. Adam* is one of them, and said it was their only option, as each private flat they’d applied for had up to 500 other applications. However, students say it’s “kind of a relief” to at least have somewhere to live, despite being less than “ideal”.

Current scenes in Edinburgh

The city has a huge shortage of shared rented housing right now, with many Edi students sofa surfing, staying with partners, or remaining at their family homes until they can get accommodation. One student said they’d applied for flats but has been outbid by students offering to pay hundreds more in rent. They have now managed to secure a flat, for £700 a month per person.

Edinburgh University said all students who met the “requirements of our accommodation guarantee” have been offered a place in uni residences this year, and this “temporary” setup was provided to support those who didn’t meet the requirements but hadn’t been able to secure a place to live at the start of term.

No this isn’t a shit hostel from your gap year

The uni said students who are looking for private rented accommodation “are competing with Edinburgh’s expanding workforce as well as visitors who are attracted to short-term lets across the city”, and it acknowledged that whilst these factors are outside of the uni’s control, it does “have a part to play in finding solutions to the problem”. It’s the same in Glasgow, where the uni has “significantly increased bedspaces” this year whilst it says there has been “no significant additional capacity in the city”.

And what about Manchester? MMU said there has been a large increase in its number of students, with “significantly more offer holders” which “long-term” planning of accommodation didn’t “anticipate” for. Manchester University similarly said the demand for halls this year has been “unprecedented”, with a high number of deferred places due to Covid as well as high A-Level results over the pandemic with teacher-assessed, instead of exam-based, grades.

It’s not clear how universities are going to handle this in the long term. Some of these students now have places to live, but those without are still waiting for answers.

Have you had a uni accommodation crisis this year? Whether it’s in halls or with a private landlord – if you have a story you think we should know about, get in touch at [email protected]

Related stories recommended by this writer:

The University of Manchester is paying students £2.5k to give up their places in halls

Glasgow Uni emails students advising them to drop out if they haven’t found housing yet

‘It’s not ideal’: Meet the Edi students communally living in in Pollock’s common rooms