Ben HaywardOctober 14th
2019

This autumn, university students across the UK will launch the Cut the Rent campaign in an attempt to force universities to lower the cost of their accommodation.

The campaign comes as many students are forced to turn to part-time work or rely on handouts from friends and family just to make ends meet due high cost of living across UK campuses.

Rent affordability has become such a significant problem that the government’s recent Augar review of post-18 funding warned of ‘widespread and significant concerns’ about high accommodation costs, recommending that universities work to monitor the pricing, profit margins and quality of student housing.

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The Guardian spoke to Caitlin Ghibout, a student activist who will be launching a Cut the Rent campaign in Durham. A second-year anthropology student, Caitlin is extremely concerned about the high price of college accommodation at the university.

A cost of £7,772 a year for a catered room at Durham, leaves students receiving the maximum maintenance loan (mostly those from poorer families) of £8,700 (outside London) a grand total of £1,270 to cover the rest of their living costs for the year.  

Speaking to The Guardian, Caitlin said: “Rents have been rising significantly every year since 2010. It’s got to the point where, if you were looking at which university to go to but didn’t have much money, you wouldn’t be able to come to Durham.”

Caitlin, who receives the maximum maintenance loan for students from Scotland, says that without the support of her parents she wouldn’t have been able to take her place at Durham.

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According to the National Union of Students (NUS) rents accounted for a staggering 73% of the maximum student loan last year, compared with 58% in 2011-12. With average annual rents of over £6,000 in the UK a student receiving the average maintenance loan can barely cover the cost of their accommodation.

This Wednesday (October 16th) will see a national day of action organised by activist network Rent Strike. Clementine Boucher, a core activist at the network, says student campaigning is growing rapidly, estimating that 15 new campaigns will launch across campuses this autumn.

“Students have accumulated so much debt and their quality of life has deteriorated so much it was impossible not to notice,” she says. “They are really angry, frustrated and depressed by the situation. The group is building every year, so we are getting more campaigns, and more wins.”

And there have already been some impressive wins. Liverpool University bowed to pressure about rising rents and has now agreed to provide bursaries for the 25% of students with the lowest household income.

Rory Hughes, the former student union president who led the campaign, said the university’s accommodation was the most expensive in the country outside London and that ‘living in halls cost twice as much a week’ as in private housing.

“We won the biggest rent cut in the history of the student movement,” says Hughes. “It’s a million pounds a year to invest in making beds affordable for the next four to five years.”

However, Gavin Brown, a pro vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool, said it can be difficult to strike a balance between what students say they want from housing and what they are able to pay for. “If you want something that’s very high quality, it involves significant investment,” he says.

Back up in Durham, Caitlin and her fellow campaigners also want to be sure that enough of the profits from student accommodation are going towards improving the standard of rooms, rather than on university expansion.

Durham University says it doesn’t hold information on the percentage of fees spent on building improvements, but pro vice-chancellor, Jeremy Cook, says rents have ‘been raised to reflect rising staff, utility, and building costs’ and that over the next five years, the university will invest £56m on maintenance and refurbishment. 

He also added that students from the lowest-earning households can apply for a means-tested bursary scheme worth £2,000 a year.

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