Flat out: student accommodation is hitting crisis point
A national housing shortage, inflation and soaring rents means that UK university attendees are being forced to defer or drop out. How did we get here?
Eighteen-year-old Raef Macnaghten from Portsmouth was due to start university in Glasgow this September. He accepted his place after results day, applied for accommodation and waited. Hearing nothing back, his mum phoned the university and was told there was none available. They told her that “hundreds” of first-year students were in the same boat. Their only advice: defer, or go elsewhere.
“My parents were absolutely shell shocked,” says Raef. “I’d been messed around so many times.” His overwhelming feeling, he says, is of “extreme frustration”, and it’s led to him being forced to take a gap year that neither he, nor his parents, wanted.
As the academic year is set to begin and Freshers’ Week kicks off, new and returning students around the country are faced with a more pressing problem than which flat to host pre-drinks in. Right now, many of them will be lucky if they have a place to live at all.
In Glasgow, many would-be first-years have been left with no other option but to defer or drop out completely. Hundreds of second, third and fourth-year students, not to mention postgrads, are staring down the reality of sofa-surfing or extortionate rent prices as they return to the city they call their second home. A knock-on effect of the national housing crisis and soaring rents means that stories abound of flats having upwards of 600 applicants within minutes of being listed. Last week, the University of Glasgow sent the following via email to all students: “If you do not yet have accommodation in the city, please do not travel to Glasgow.”
In Bristol, student housing waiting lists have more than trebled. In Manchester, students are being paid to live elsewhere. Referring to the crisis, the National Union of Students has described British universities as “washing their hands of their duty towards their own students”.
But in Glasgow, a city with three major universities as well as Glasgow School of Art, it’s particularly acute. A combination of increased student numbers, a change in the legislation governing private landlords, the after-effects of the pandemic and breakdowns within the University of Glasgow’s accommodation service are creating an unprecedented housing crisis for the city’s students.
The situation is so desperate that the university’s Students’ Representative Council lobbied last year for a suspension on student recruitment, predicting that the problem would worsen this year. In 2021, the Glasgow Guardian learnt that the university was aware of an increased, “very strong” intake of students that would “achieve the growth projected in the budget”. Despite this, UofG seemingly did not conduct any surveys or studies into student housing, and while it did discuss additional teaching staff, an additional accommodation strategy was not mentioned. This blindspot led to accounts of students who couldn’t find housing similar to what we are seeing this year.
Ellie Gomersall, president of the NUS Scotland, stated: “We urgently need rent controls and a student housing guarantee that ensures government, universities, and local authorities work together so every student has a safe and affordable place to live.”
Why is this crisis happening? Broadly and simply, it’s a case of too many students, not enough beds. In Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest university has offered places to more students than the city can take. UofG did boost their student bed numbers by 25 per cent, but this barely scratched the surface. As the university has acknowledged: “Demand has continued to exceed supply.”
The increased demand is a nationwide issue. The number of students being accepted at UK higher education institutions hit a record high of 570,000 in 2020, up by 17 per cent compared to a decade ago. Last year’s figure was 562,000.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has played a role in this. Grade inflation increased the number of students receiving top marks and therefore getting into universities. This is alongside large numbers of deferred places now being taken up by those who didn’t want to attend uni in lockdown – and a backlog of deferral students remains, meaning the situation in 2023 could be even worse.
Responses from universities have offered, at best, blunt-force solutions. UofG has stepped back from its guarantee to provide homes for first-year students. In a city where, traditionally, many Glaswegians attend a hometown university, housing for those who live within commuting distance of UofG is now being automatically denied. For all other first-year students, they were told they wouldn’t have their accommodation placement confirmed until 10 days after results day – two weeks before term begins.
This also didn’t take into account the, by definition, last-minute nature of the clearing process. Many students, then, discovered in the immediate run-up to term time that they needed to find a private rental solution in Glasgow. And if they can’t? They’re already too late to apply to other universities.
On UofG’s accommodation page, it states: “Unfortunately, we know that there are currently accommodation challenges within Glasgow driven by a contraction in the private rental market.”
An agent at Countrywide Letting explains the meaning of this: during the pandemic, a lot of landlords sold their properties. Then, the market saw a recent price shift, and it became a good time to sell, with properties going for up to 30 per cent over the asking price. As a consequence, “the university is relying on private landlords to accommodate the students but [the rental stock now] isn’t substantial”.
The situation has been exacerbated by new Private Residential Tenancy rules introduced by the Scottish Government in 2017, which were intended to “improve security, stability and predictability for tenants”. But the Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL) has argued that this in fact reduces student homes in Scotland as “landlords were no longer able to offer fixed-term leases which matched term times”. This is set to be replicated in England too, under the Renter’s Reform Bill.
As one Scottish landlord wrote online: “It’s unbearable. This train crash has already happened in Scotland and now it’s going to happen in England. I’ve never seen anything so stupid in my life. I’m a student landlord and after 37 years I’m selling up the whole lot.”
He’s not alone. Earlier this year, a survey of SAL members showed a potential reduction of 36,000 Scottish homes available to rent due to over a third of private landlords aiming to sell their properties. This further drives up rent.
To make it even harder, students are battling with HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) licensing in Glasgow. A HMO is a residential property where three or more unrelated people live. These properties are subject to strict licensing conditions, and the licence itself is expensive. As a result, many landlords don’t purchase them and instead let out their properties as non-HMO.
This is a near-impossible prospect for students who want to live in house-shares, as it’s highly unlikely they are living with a partner or relative at the age of 18 or so. In previous years, some students pretended to be in relationships with their friends to be accepted in non-HMO properties, which are more affordable. But it seems the application process has become more rigorous, and landlords now request some kind of “proof of relationship”, such as joint bank accounts dating back a minimum of six months. This is something that students in a fake relationship can’t provide.
In Bristol, the situation is at “crisis point”, according to letting company Balloon Lets. In 2021, the city’s University of the West of England (UWE) had 150 students on the housing waiting list; now the list has 485 names. Alongside this, private rental prices have increased dramatically, from an average of £400 per person per room to around £700.
i News reported on a student with an unconditional offer at UWE. He was told by the university that every single accommodation option he picked was unavailable. Instead, he was offered a “tower suite” in the city costing roughly £10,000 a year, or somewhere 45 minutes away in Newport or Gloucester. They also offered him a link to a Facebook group of other students in need of a home. Not, perhaps, the most reassuring or appealing prospect for a teenage newcomer to a city.
Wherever you look, there are variations on the same worrying theme. Tay Letting says the situation is just as bad in Edinburgh and Dundee, with similar accounts in St Andrews, a small town with a hugely popular university. Manchester Metropolitan University students have been offered £100 a week to live in other cities – for example, Liverpool or Huddersfield – as the university cannot cope with “significantly more offer holders than anticipated”’ according to the Manchester Evening News – a line repeated by unis across the UK. To borrow a phrase used by an alarming number of estate agents, it’s a “perfect storm”.
Ahead of starting my second year in Glasgow this month, I have been flat hunting since April with no luck. I know many other people in this situation, too. As my friend Krish put it, “It’s such a ball ache!” But whether you’re new to a city, embarking on the year when your academic demands really kick in, or your finals, that’s a bit of an understatement.
In my experience over the last three months, if a flat comes on the market, viewings will be fully booked within minutes. On the inside, estate agents report similar stories. Two weeks ago, Countrywide Letting had 600 applicants for a two-bed flat, the majority of which were students – a “very unusual” number for one property this late in the year. Tay Letting also reported having over 1,000 applications to view a one-bed flat. As an agent at one lettings company popular with students tells THE FACE, “I’ve never, ever seen it as bad as this.”
Tenants are now offering way over the asking price to secure a home, a financial luxury most students can’t afford. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that student financial support is falling short of matching rapidly increasing inflation, which is at its highest point since the introduction of tuition fees. The real-term value of maintenance loans has dropped to a seven-year low, coinciding with the skyrocketing prices of food, rent and energy bills.
The looming winter feels even more challenging to me and my peers. As it stands right now, my first term will be defined by a fold-out mattress on my mate’s floor. The novelty will soon wear off, I’ve no doubt, and refreshing Rightmove at eight o’clock every morning is becoming draining.
But at least I have a place at university. For many teenagers across the UK, they’ll have to wait another year to experience the Freshers Week they’d imagined.