Inside the unspoken pest problem at Russell Group universities
‘People expect us to put up with this because we are students’
High-profile Russell Group universities are employing pest control companies on a daily basis as they attempt to fight a spiralling pest problem costing them hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.
An investigation by The Tab found Russell Group unis have spent over £4.8 million in the past five years with spending last year (2021/22) up 49 per cent since 2019/20.
Replies to freedom of information requests from 18 of the 24 institutions also showed there was more than one callout per day on average at four universities. At York, where there have been 3,210 individual pest control jobs, the university is almost averaging two callouts a day.
The Tab’s findings revealed universities are dealing with everything from well-known pests such as mice, rats and silverfish to more perplexing examples of bats, moles and rabbits.
Universities have been quick to defend the spending, pointing out they operate large estates which include everything from lecture theatres to libraries and halls of residence.
However, the National Union of Students (NUS) argued the hundreds of thousands being spent on pest control services demonstrated the “short term thinking” of universities amid an avoidance to actually fixing long term structural problems.
Nehaal Bajwa, the NUS vice president for Liberation and Equality told The Tab: “Universities are effectively the landlords in purpose-built student accommodation and they have a responsibility to ensure their properties are fit for habitation and are not infested with vermin.
“This is another example of short-term thinking that harms renters: rather than focusing on fixing structural issues, landlords are spending millions on pest control they wouldn’t need if they had kept up with maintenance.
“It is unacceptable that students are having to live in substandard accommodation. No one should have to live in housing that impacts negatively on their wellbeing.”
At Edinburgh, the university has spent £389,795 in the past five academic years. One resident at David Horn – where students pay up to £5,234 per year – said they had “seriously considered dropping out” because of how the university handled the reported mice infestation in their bedroom.
The first year student said they had heard a “scratching noise” every night since December. “I thought it must have been the pipes or mice in the walls,” they said.
With the noise persisting nightly like clockwork, the student turned their room upside down to find the source. Finally, after moving a piece of furniture, they found a hole in the wall which they claimed “looked like it had been chewed through”.
“I immediately contacted my accommodation emphasising the urgency.” However, despite receiving an email on 27th April providing basic instructions about how to cover the wall themselves, the student says the hole was never dealt with and was still there by the time they moved out last month.
“The whole row was one of the reasons I seriously considered dropping out. If the uni can’t patch holes in walls, how are any of us supposed to trust it in a mental health crisis or something similar.”
Documents seen by The Tab show this wasn’t an isolated incident. Last year, 16 David Horn residents signed a letter asking for a partial rent reduction after making 28 complaints throughout the year. Seven of these involved mice infestations and three involved wasps or wasp nests.
One of those complaints showed a hole in the wall in a different bedroom which they claimed was also being used by mice.
The university apologised for the students’ experience but denied that compensation was in order as it had “addressed all reported issues as quickly as possible and met our obligations to deal with repairs in a reasonable timescale”.
David Horn is one of the cheapest halls of residence at the university. There are just 39 rooms, 30 of which are single rooms and nine are twin rooms where students share with a roommate for a heavily discounted rate.
For one of those complainants, Kat, she felt the university took advantage of their financial position. “Our experience was absolutely awful. They let us live in abysmal conditions because we simply couldn’t afford anything better.
“Most of us had absolutely no financial standing against the university. For this reason, I feel like the university felt no obligation to us.”
According to first year student Morven, the situation is not much better at Sciennes, another comparatively low-priced Edinburgh hall of residence. She told The Tab she had lived with a “rodent infestation for the whole of semester two and by the time we moved out at the start of June there were still mice”.
When she complained to her accommodation, she was told it was “legally not a landlord’s problem to resolve”, however the university would arrange for pest control to come on three occasions to lay traps and encouraged Morven and her flatmates to do the same.
The university also sent the flat a powerpoint presentation with advice. However this advice, which included keeping counters clean and not storing dry food packets in lower cupboards, is often unrealistic and impractical for kitchens shared by up to six people where space is extremely limited.
“If I was applying to university this year, I wouldn’t be reapplying to stay in university managed accommodation because I now have very little trust in the university,” Morven said.
It’s not just in halls of residence where universities are fighting pests. When third year mechanical engineering student Harry reported seeing two mice in the main library at Edinburgh University, he said the receptionist seemed unfazed and simply told him “it was a big problem”.
The receptionist told him the university would exterminate the mice on one floor of the library before they would reappear on another floor.
A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “Our accommodation teams work hard to ensure that our student accommodation meets all health and safety standards. Once an issue is raised, we work hard to resolve it as quickly as possible. We acknowledge that some repairs could have been carried out sooner and we have apologised to those affected.
“We provide cleaning services in all of our University buildings and we also share regular guidance around the importance of cleanliness in common areas to students in our halls of residences. We work closely with Edinburgh City Council’s pest control team to monitor reported vermin infestations.”
At the University of Nottingham, Ellie said residents in her accommodation, Hugh Stewart Hall, were told to use the university library for a week to get access to WiFi after rats allegedly chewed through the WiFi cable in her flat.
The incident reportedly took place in 2021. The hall was shut down at the start of the academic year to undergo two years of refurbishment.
In the previous five academic years before it closed, pest control services dealt with ants (seven times), bed bugs (once), insects (three times), a rodent (31 times), silverfish (eight times) and wasps (21 times) at Hugh Stewart.
A spokesperson for the University of Nottingham said: “We have robust pest control policies and procedures in place to protect the health and safety of our staff and students and ensure that any isolated incidents are dealt with quickly and effectively.
“We offer a wide range of high-quality accommodation options and conduct a rolling programme of refurbishment to ensure our on-campus halls of residence, including our heritage halls such as Florence Boot and Hugh Stewart, continue to provide an excellent university experience for all our students.
“Any student with any concerns about their accommodation can raise these with their hall manager or directly with our Accommodation Office.”
In spite of what the University of Nottingham says, the problem according to many students is the difficulty in reporting incidents and a feeling they should simply put up with substandard conditions.
Most of these students are 18, they’re three months out of school and they’ve never lived away from home. They’re balancing daunting new workloads with the anxieties of making new friends and living away from home. Joining universities, some of which were founded over 500 years ago and have just shy of 50,000 students and staff, they have the least agency and the smallest voices.
“I think most people expect us to put up with this to a certain extent as we’re students,” one Durham student at Hatfield College said.
Another Hatfield resident, who woke up to the sight of hundreds of ants having taken over her room one morning in April said: “I didn’t actually report it because it’s unclear where to go for that.”
“I had silverfish on my bed, shelves, carpet and bathroom floor,” a University of Manchester first year student said. When we asked whether they had reported the incident, they replied: “I didn’t. To be honest I assumed it wasn’t something they’d deal with in a hurry.”
The student, who until last month lived at £166-a-week Richmond Park, added: “Looking at the maintenance report logs, it didn’t appear to be a priority issue so I didn’t feel like they’d be too bothered about fixing it.”
Some students, however, have attempted to fight back. At Manchester, 350 students joined forces this year to collectively withhold £2 million worth in rent after they skipped two rent payments in January and April.
The protest escalated into numerous building occupations, culminating in the university spending £38,000 to contract private bailiffs to “violently evict” approximately 20 rent strikers who had staged a 38-day occupation inside the Simon building.
The university has since threatened their own students with legal action and expulsion. This week, nine were found guilty of health and safety breaches with all other charges dropped. However, the nine students will reportedly have to write apologies to the university for engaging in protest action and must promise to never be involved in various kinds of on-campus activism again.
At the University of Bristol, one student has taken a different approach. Understandably, without any desire to be taken to court by their university or threatened with expulsion, they created an anonymous Instagram page dedicated to showing every type of pest incident submitted by fellow students.
The biochemistry student, who is now at the end of their second year, lived in city-centre hall of residence, Orchard Heights, between September 2021 and June 2022. Using their account @orchardheights_pets, they shared pictures and videos of mice, rats and silverfish submitted by students as well one infamous post which quickly went viral in February last year allegedly showing an Orchard Heights resident “pickling” a rat inside a jar.
A University of Bristol spokesperson said at the time: “It goes without saying that we do not condone this type of behaviour from our students. As soon as we were made aware of this at the start of February, we dealt with the matter as quickly as possible and the item was removed from the building.”
The second year student told The Tab: “The goal of the account at the end of the day was meant as a way of showcasing how bad the problem had gotten in Orchard Heights, and I hoped once it had gained enough traction they wouldn’t be able to ignore it any longer and might actually do something about the pest problem.”
As the account’s popularity grew, they started to accept submissions from other halls of residence as well. They then changed their account name to @uob_pets. “I’ve had at least 100 DMs. Once I started accepting responses from wider university halls, I became aware of other pests like ladybugs, slugs and even frogs.
“I think almost everyone has a story. I didn’t even know what silverfish were until a few weeks living in Orchard Heights, next thing I know they’re everywhere I look.”
They added: “I don’t think it’s that students are too shy or preoccupied to complain, because we definitely did and continue to. I reckon it’s that universities think they can get away with ignoring these health hazards because at the end of the day, we don’t really have anywhere else to go.
“Most first years are living away from home, they can be a bit gross but let’s be honest pest issues don’t just stem from a few students being unhygienic or neglectful.
“I genuinely believe some are downright unfit for human habitation and universities can get away with charging extortionate prices, because we’re students.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson told The Tab: “We work swiftly to deal with any reports of pests within our residences. Students can do their bit to help by making sure they keep spaces as clean as possible and ensure they dispose of rubbish correctly.”
The pest problem at Britain’s top universities is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Dee Ward-Thompson, head of technical at British Pest Control Association, told The Tab: “During the pandemic, our Members reported an increase in pest activity in larger buildings that were left empty due to lockdown restrictions, indicating that some pests had discovered new territories offering harbourage and food sources.
“We do have levels of resistance in a number of cities around the UK, both behavioural and physiological. [However] this hasn’t changed much in the last few years.
“Some large centrally-heated buildings, such as those found on university campuses, can also be at risk of specific pests not found elsewhere, such as Pharaoh ants and Ghost ants.”
The NUS has called on the government to go further in protecting the rights of students.
Nehaal Bajwa said: “The marketisation of higher education and the unwillingness of this government to pass legislation on building standards has meant profit has consistently been put before questions of affordability for students, accessibility, and welfare.
“Students and learners are still facing a massive cost of living crisis, often paying higher rents while student loans or wages have not gone up. It is beyond time for meaningful action on rents and building standards from universities, the private housing sector, and the government.”
A spokesperson for University of Manchester said: “The University employs a pest control contractor which covers all our buildings on Oxford Road and the Sackville Street site. Any reported issues are dealt with immediately and regular health and safety checks take place.
“We also have a reactive service that responds to issues raised through the buildings’ maintenance reporting system. The contractor will continue to monitor and carry out follow-up treatments and inspections until there is no detected activity. All residences are cleaned twice a week by cleaning services. This is a partnership to supplement the cleaning that residents would do themselves.
“The data on call outs to our contractor prior to 2021 is inaccurate due to the closure of buildings as a result of Covid.”
A spokesperson for Durham University said: “We are investing £120m over a ten-year refurbishment programme to improve the quality of our college accommodation.
“We respond to concerns raised by students as soon as possible, and would encourage any student who observes a defect in the University estate to report this, to their college or department.”
A spokesperson for the University of Leeds said: “The University of Leeds has a large city centre campus and extensive farms and sports fields adjoining rural areas. This means that we spend more money than most on a comprehensive management plan to ensure our overall estate is free of pests.”