With the beginning of the 2008/09 academic year fast approaching, students will soon be settling in to the realities of student life. For new students this means at some point they’ve made a choice: between studying away from home on the one hand and continuing to live with their parents on the other. Almost a third of students choose the latter option. This often means a long commute to a university chosen on the basis of its location instead of its merits – but at least these students have the security of a roof over their head. For those who have chosen to study away from home, often unaware of the true cost of student life, this means moving in to student accommodation and an ongoing struggle against poverty, unscrupulous landlords and, more often than not, appalling living conditions.
From the first day of the first semester there is one thing that all students can be sure of: their maintenance loan won’t be enough to keep body and soul together. Students are entitled to no more than £3000 non-income assessed, which rises to a mere £4600 for students from the poorest backgrounds. Compare this with an average rent of £60 per week (which works out at £3120 for the year) and then add on the rising cost of utilities, food and other necessities and the loan system is exposed for what it really is – a disgrace. The only way for most students to make ends meet is to work at least part of the time during the semester and burden themselves with overdrafts and credit cards the rest of the time. During the summer holidays when the loan has dried up students are forced to seek out whatever work they can get and have none of the usual rights to Job Seekers’ Allowance or other benefits that most workers can fall back on.
The Government has done nothing to make student housing more affordable. Most first year students looking to live away from home for the first time look to move in to university owned halls of residence. In this way they are guaranteed good quality housing at a cheap price. Thanks to PFI, these residences are now being opened up to profiteering vultures from the private sector. To give an example from a 2002 Unison report; at Luton University student nurses were told they had to leave their halls of residence and move into new PFI-built halls. Their rents shot up from £177 per month to £244 per month with at least one student being forced to sleep in their car! Besides incredibly inflated prices, these profiteers also force students to sign longer contracts, so that students living at university during term time are forced to sign 52 week contracts and pay rent even when they know they won’t be living there.
Besides being unaffordable, private housing is also a playground for bad landlords. Surely students ought to be able to expect landlords to fulfil their contracts as an absolute minimum? Apparently not. More and more students are living with damp, infestation, poor or nonexistent heating and unsafe appliances – to the complete indifference of landlords. Landlords therefore often get away with breaking the law – the long and arduous process through the courts will always favour the landlord in the long run.
All this begs the question: why is student housing in such a bad state and what needs to be done to improve it? The question of housing isn’t, after all, isolated to students. In the current economic climate more and more people are finding it difficult to keep up with their rent and mortgage repayments. The Tories and New Labour have no solution beyond opening housing up further to the private sector. PFI and private landlords only succeed in driving students to the breadline and ultimately out of education altogether. The only way to win our rights for both a decent education and decent housing is through the organised labour and student movements. The NUS and the Unions must organise together at the grassroots and fight to force the Labour government to act on the housing disgrace. The Labour government must adopt socialist policies now to assure workers and students alike affordable and secure housing:
No to privatisation of student halls of residence!
Begin a massive programme of decent social housing!
A living grant for all students!