The start of a university journey should be a time of great excitement, however a recent NUS report has emphasised the painful truth – across the country rocketing rents are plunging half of all undergraduates into difficulties when paying their accommodation bills.
Durham has tragically emerged into a microcosm of the national student accommodation crisis: college accommodation fees have risen by 20% over the past three years and students are paying 31% more in private accommodation than non-students, the second highest premium in the country.
With a catered standard-let college room now costing £6,819 and the maximum maintenance loan available only £5,500, accommodation fees now yield the most explicit threat to students’ social mobility. The removal of the cap on student numbers is also stimulating housing demand, and the abolition of maintenance grants and an austerity programme that has disproportionately affected the poorest in society threatens to cleanse our collegiate system of less well-off students.
Apologies for the melancholy mood and the absence of the hyperbole smiles that inevitably plastered the influx of college papers you received in the post. I, like most Durham students, deeply value the collegiate system and can assure you that it’s the fabric of the unique experience Durham University offers.
Consequently, it is of the upmost importance to fight for our collegiate system to remain affordable and open to all. It is a calamity that in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, students should be forced to make their university choices not on the quality of education, but the cost of living.
To provide context for the North East: a catered standard-let room in Newcastle costs £4,762 and £5,115 in York. It is thus common that financial decisions will increasingly rise to the forefront when choosing a University, but this is to the detriment of all of us. Durham retains its reputation because it attracts many bright students and sequentially many of the most acclaimed academics.
The diversity within the University will continue to decline while accommodation fees remain out of reach for so many students. This can only aggravate Durham’s already colossal diversity problem: student numbers from private and public schools are a clear example of this, and so is the noticeable lack of BME students.
Durham University is the largest landlord in the city and rising college fees enable the private landlords to follow suit: between March 2014 and March 2015 private fees rose over 5%. Tom Walker, Co-Founder of StuRents, describes this as: “the private sector following trend”. Failure to address college accommodation fees will only increase costs for livers out.
Last year major forays were established in the crusade against accommodation fees: a petition by the Durham Student Union (SU) received over 2,000 signatures, Durham Students for University Reform (DS4UR) organised the largest protest in Durham seen in the past fourteen years and Open Days were used to educate parents on the issue in the hope that they would pressure the University to condemn the fee rise.
The accommodation fee protest is a discourse that is greater than just cost: it is about questioning University officials’ ignorance to the student voice and our lack of prevalence in decision making processes. It is an opportunity for greater clarity in where our money is going: one third of college fees are invested in borrowing and capital costs – it was discovered in a Palatinate investigation that defence contractors, missile developers and petroleum companies all benefit from our fees, and this is something we need to address. And of course there is still the tone of ambiguity surrounding what exactly ‘non-staff costs’ are, which contribute to 5% of college fees.
Yet the University still remains deafened to student opinion regarding accommodation fees, although last year did prove as a reminder of the power in student pressure as the DSU succeeded in their campaign to freeze international student tuition fees.
With the Durham SU and DS4UR in correspondence on a position to freeze college fees for the next two years, a united student body is essential in halting a seemingly endless trajectory.
Since 2010 the student movement has become muzzled, too fragmented with the few of us still engaged, too fixated with the utopian objective of free tuition fees. This must be the year where students on campuses across the country peacefully demonstrate and attempt to engage in discussion with University Officials to halt the destructive spiralling tornado of accommodation fees.
Durham must follow in the footsteps of campaigns at other universities already focussed on making accommodation more affordable to students. Angus O’Brien, Halls and Accommodation representative at UCL and a founder of the ‘Cut the Rent’ campaign, says “only 5 years ago, halls in London were, on average, 56% cheaper. It is impossible to see how students from lower income backgrounds could survive as so many are forced to rely on income from other sources, normally parents.” At UCL students have already been working to “roll back the years of unjustified, high increases.”
We must unite in solidarity through our Student Unions, Senior and Junior Common Rooms, and student campaign groups to stop accommodation fees rising.
Rising fees are bad for all of us and are rapidly throttling more students who don’t receive maintenance grants into financial woes, exhausting part-time work and cruel stress for both students and parents.
The momentum we garner in campaigning on our campuses across the country is essential in generating the solidarity to contribute to the national discourse in seeking to introduce rent controls against student accommodation, in a market that nationally is increasingly entering the private sector.
Hopefully we can make this the year that the University finally listens and takes action upon our concerns.
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Illustration: Mariam Hayat