Since the early days of the coalition the media has been so congested with stories declaring “student grants axed” and “students protest against cuts” that most people have become immune to the realities behind them. Especially immune are those reporting the stories, who while no doubt sympathetic, presumably graduated when fees were less than £3000 annually, and when house deposits weren’t but a mere dream unless your parents could afford to sell off an asset or two to get you on the property ladder. As a student beginning university in the second year that the £9000 fees came into being, it felt like an injustice that had little effect on my everyday life. Yes, it was unfair, yes it made me angry, but did it really matter if there were no jobs around in which I could be earning above the threshold to pay it back?
More close to home however is the reality of maintenance loans. As an A-Level student I had set my sights on University College London for it’s academic reputation, and its location in the bright lights of the capital. However, UCL is probably the most infamous university in terms of unfair rent, with students striking due to sky high rents for rat infested halls. For the luxury of your own bedroom at UCL you have to pay a minimum of £170 per week, with the more usual cost being over £200 per week. Personally my rent was the cheapest available at £120 for a shared bedroom. I received around just enough loan to cover this, and with my parents being at that particularly annoying income level where they aren’t earning enough to supplement my loan or a low enough amount to enable me to receive grants, I had to get a part-time job. A job from which the earnings vanished as I tried to afford the ludicrous cost of living in London. I couldn’t help but wish I had been born into a wealthier family that could’ve paid for a single room and maybe the cost of the tube at least.
I dropped out to the sympathetic cooing’s of “ah yes, you’ve got to be rich to study down south.” This is the common air of acceptance I generally find when I tell this story. But this isn’t just a London issue, or even a southern issue. Loans continue to remain stagnant while the price of student accommodation nationwide soars. Even when it came for me to decide between the University of Liverpool and the University of Manchester, cost was the final crucial factor. In Liverpool all of the self catered halls are of such high standard that a single room costs £120 a week. The halls with the most basic conditions are catered, meaning that £141 a week, for 39 weeks, is the lowest amount you can pay to live in a traditionally ‘student’ environment. This means even with the highest possible maintenance loan of £5740, you’d have just £241 per year to live off.
Ultimately Manchester’s Oak House at £93 a week was the only university out of the five I’d applied to which had accommodation that my loan covered, and with the recent approval of £175 million refurbishment plans for the Owens Park and Oak House campus in the student centre of Fallowfield, the only affordable rent in Manchester looks set to be wiped out. With £9000 per student per year being absorbed by these institutions for tuition fees, it’s difficult to understand why universities must also seek profit from student accommodation.
Of course there are the exceptions. Accommodation at The University of Sheffield has been voted number one in the country for three years in a row in The Experience Survey, and the university offers a wide range of prices and levels of luxury. At the University of Warwick, after vigorous campaigning by the student union, the price of on campus accommodation has been frozen, and students have the opportunity to move out at Christmas and Easter times for cheaper rent. I struggle to see why all universities haven’t adopted this model. This is especially true given the government’s relentless cuts, such as the recent changes to nursing grants. Changes which Claudia, a first year nursing student at The University of Manchester, believes would have made it impossible for her to embark on a degree at all had they come into action before she began studying.
In the early 2000s, the number of students whose parents did not attend university began to rise. Now it feels as if that rise will soon be turned on it’s heel, as less well-off students continue to be priced out of the best universities, unable to afford the price of living away from home.
Those that do make the leap will suffer academically as they struggle to balance a part time job with their studies, and will still ultimately end up in higher debt than their wealthier peers. Surely lower accommodation prices would attract a wider range of intellectuals, adding to the wealth of diversity, which all universities love to tell us they embody. Universities should be competing for students to enroll for the wealth of our minds, not our parents’ bank accounts.
Photography: Neil Turner / Flickr
Abby Mercer is 19 year old Law student at the University of Manchester, you’ll find her somewhere taking photos of her flat whites.