Opinion: Colleges charging vacation rent are disproportionately impacting disadvantaged students

This is simply the most recent in a long line of university policies that impact those who are less advantaged

CN: Discussion of mental health


In what can only really be described as the strangest Lent Term any of us have ever experienced, it seems that there was one more surprise lurking around the corner. With the news relayed via email that any students residing in college accommodation would have to remain there over the Easter vacation, it simply seemed like the season finale plot twist to a term full of surprise twists and turns.

At the beginning of term, when it was announced that students could not return to college except in the very specific circumstances outlined by the government, many of us, myself included, felt torn about whether to return to college accommodation or not, and this feeling of anxiety and uncertainty over remaining in college has certainly not been reduced by this latest development.

The most confusing thing about this is of course the issue of rent. Remaining in college accommodation, albeit somewhat against our own will, surely means that rent will be expected and whilst some colleges, such as my own, have not yet broached the subject or released any information about rent, Robinson College has certainly raised eyebrows with their announcement that students will be expected to pay rent at full holiday rates over the vacation period. This is £18.56 a night, which equates to a pretty staggering over £519.68 for the entire holidays.

Authors own screenshot from Rent Strike Robinson on Facebook

Photo credit: Author’s own screenshot from Facebook

‘Surplus rent is just one added stress which the college has the funds but not the willpower to fix’

Robinson College was one of the first colleges to reveal that not only would they be charging rent for students forced to remain in accommodation over the Easter vacation, but that they would in fact be charging the full rent. Students have pointed out that Robinson have some of the highest rent price anyway, with the cheapest rooms costing £1410 a term and the standard rooms costing over £1700. The insistence of the college on charging full rent prices certainly has the potential of causing financial difficulties for those who have to stay during the upcoming vacation.

Author's own screenshot from Facebook

Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Love from the Bricks via Facebook

Rent Strike Robinson has organised a mass emailing session in protest of the College’s decision, to which the Domestic Bursar stated that it “serves no purpose” for students to express their concern at this.

One Robinson student said that “it feels so frustrating to see the college take such little action to support students financially. A rent reduction at a time of crisis such as this should be an automatic offer, not something that requires students to campaign for.”

With the pandemic, limited social contact and the immense workload that Cambridge brings, students are already highly stressed – it would surely be the least that Colleges could do to reduce the rent.

A student went on to say that for them, “it’s an issue of mental health and inclusion as much as it is one of finance – if the college is as intent on protecting students’ mental health and being as inclusive to those from less advantaged backgrounds as they suggest they are, then more of an effort would be made to financially support all Robinson students through the pandemic”.

The pandemic has not been a social leveller – quite the opposite…

So whilst Robinson is perhaps the most high profile case of charging rent, it is certainly not the only college who is letting students down yet again.

It is no secret that Cambridge has access problems. Whilst performative acts of support seem to be prevalent and the phrase “there is always help for those who ask” is tossed around frequently, that doesn’t change the fact that there is an economic inequality that becomes obvious the minute you start unpacking your bags.

So it becomes especially troubling that colleges seem to be relentless on the rent issue when we consider who is in college accommodation this term. Amongst the (limited) list of potential reasons for returning, poor workspace and lack of access to adequate services was present. Many of the students being forced to bear the weight of these charges are already experiencing an extremely difficult time, let alone it being compounded with increased financial stress like this.

In addition to this, this third (and hopefully final lockdown) is having a notable impact on students from less advantaged backgrounds. Working class students and those from vulnerable backgrounds have been forced to choose between staying at home and saving rent money, or returning to college to facilitate their study and education, and for those that have chosen to come back, this is simply another way in which the pandemic is disproportionately affecting them.

So what we have here is a number of students from less advantaged backgrounds being forced to stay in college accommodation and on top of that pay a frankly extortionate amount of rent, that no one had the foresight to budget. It seems that yet again, Cambridge policies are disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students.

‘I came back for mental health and now I feel more trapped than before’

Whilst the financial element of this entire affair is overwhelming, there are other issues at play here as well. Amongst students that returned to college due to a lack of adequate workspace at home, another large group that were permitted to return (albeit with a lot of difficulty) were those who experience poor mental health.

We know by now the impact that the pandemic has had on our mental health. Mind UK reported that over two-thirds of young adults have experienced worsening mental health during the pandemic, and Cambridge’s very own STEP study has found similar results (to no one’s surprise).

Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess via Facebook

Students, then, that returned on mental health grounds, such as myself, face a conundrum. The unexpected extra time away from my family, especially now that we know that the rule of six is returning, and that therefore there is a chance, if I was at home, that I could see family whom I have been separated from for a long time, has really affected my mental state and the unexpected financial burden has certainly not relieved this anxiety.

As someone who had to fight to come back to college accommodation for Lent term, I know that I made the right decision for myself and I saw a real increase in my mood when experiencing Lent term from Cambridge, as opposed to my room, but I now feel torn.

I face what can only be described as a comical situation. If my college, when they finally reveal their decision concerning rent, decided to charge me rent at the full rate, I will likely have to request a hardship fund to pay for it. In essence then, I would be asking the college to help me financially relieve the burden that they have put upon me. This movement of money to and from College seems to be counter-productive and will certainly be an unnecessary source of stress.

Latest updates

Another recent email has revealed, rather ambiguously, that the most recent government guidance does allow students to make one trip, after the 8th March, to another household for vacation purposes and then one trip back. Whilst this does not actively stop international students from returning home for the holidays, Cambridge seeks to “particularly advise” international students to stay put for now and not travel overseas.

Whilst this news has certainly alleviated the pressure for some, it still doesn’t change too much for the situations of many students currently in Cambridge. The lack of clarification as to whether students will actually be able to return to Cambridge at the end of the holidays is certainly stressful for many of us, and the concern that we could be ‘caught out’ and forced to stay at home for the beginning of Easter Term is certainly a prevalent concern. I know that I would not want to have to go through the rigmarole of the returns policy yet again for Easter Term.

It is undeniable that this time is difficult for all of us, but I can’t help feeling that this situation is making life more difficult for those from less advantaged backgrounds and for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. It does feel, sadly, unsurprising that Cambridge is yet again letting down those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It seems to me that this is nothing but the latest in a long line of discriminatory policies which disregard class differences and mental health.

The University Press Office and Robinson College were both approached for comment

Feature Image Credit: TL4458 via Geograph (Creative Commons License)

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