The average student rent now amounts to 95% of the maintenance loan given by the government, leaving just 5% for food, books, travel and entertainment. If the current trend continues, this situation is likely to reach a crisis point, particularly in London where rents are rising faster than anywhere else in the country.
Over the last three years the price of the cheapest rooms in purpose-built university accommodation has risen by 11%. Rents in the private sector have risen even more quickly, as the National Housing Federation reported back in 2012, and the cost of private renting is set to increase a further 35% by 2018. These increases in price are, or are predicted to be, over the rate of inflation, meaning the real cost of student accommodation is increasing.
This is part of a national problem of the rapidly increasing cost of housing, but it particularly affects students and young people. They are the ones that cannot afford decent housing while older generations are often profiting from rising house prices.
The problem of collective memory loss
So why isn’t more being done to try to limit student rent increases and what could be done about it? Danny Dorling, an Oxford professor, has recently argued that a key problem is the lack of a collective memory among students about rent prices.
This problem arises as students are only in the area for a short period of time, meaning there is no knowledge stored about the historic cost of accommodation. As a result, students find it difficult to see how rapidly rent has risen and instead often view rent increases as a temporary phenomenon. But, as shown above, this isn’t true.
In addition, the quality of housing is going down, as demand for housing is so high. A 2014 NUS report revealed that over three-quarters of students have had problems with their privately rented accommodation. Universities, the private sector and even the government profit from students not remembering what conditions used to be like, and how quickly they are changing.
What actions should students take?
Students need to be aware that this problem has been growing for decades and will only get worse, unless we act. Student activism can learn from the past, and use that knowledge to change the present, to the benefit of the long-term future.
As a start this means demanding access to more information from universities about how student rents are set and how rents have changed in the past. This will show students the extent of the problem, and provide evidence that universities and private sector landlords are making excessive profits from low-income students through raising the cost of accommodation.
The first course of action is to get universities to involve student reps in the rent negotiation process, and current student reps need to publicise their role more. How negotiations are conducted should be information that is available to students, to ensure that future student reps are using the most effective strategies when demanding lower rents.
Secondly, students should join the campaign for rent controls to be reinstated and for tenants’ rights to be improved. Rent controls were removed in a push under Thatcher to deregulate and privatise the economy, but this has only served to allow landlords to benefit at the cost of those renting.
However, rent controls must be applied intelligently, otherwise we risk driving landlords out of the market and worsening the situation, which was the reason Thatcher removed rent controls in the first place. Rent controls need to be not overly restrictive, and combined with minimum quality standards to have any real effect.
If students communicate with other groups that are also fighting for lower rents, such as council tenants, then they could combine and organise their campaigns. This would allow people to discuss and share ideas about the best way to combat the problem of increasing rent. It would also allow the presentation of a more united front to the government, making concerns and demands about rising rents more likely to be heard.
Current students need to consider the welfare of future students and encourage universities to build more cheap accommodation as the proportion of non-ensuite halls that are typically cheaper is shrinking. This is something that will not benefit the current cohort of students but could make the difference between going to university or not to a future young person. The battle over rents must be focused on the long term; otherwise we risk putting future students at risk.