Guest contributor – Alan McCaskell, Postgraduate researcher in Social Policy at the University of Stirling
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause turmoil and is set to have significant impacts on the Higher Education (HE) sector going forward. In January 2021, the Scottish Government announced £20 million in additional funding for students experiencing hardship because of the coronavirus outbreak, with a further £10 million allocated to universities and colleges to cover lost income from student rent rebates.
Coronavirus press coverage in the UK has emphasised the precariousness of students’ housing situations – particularly stringent lockdowns following campus outbreaks, the inefficient rollout of food packages for those self-isolating, and rent strikes on campus. Housing difficulty at university, however, is nothing new and we are not talking about it enough.
Context: student housing
Widening access to Higher Education in the UK has “encouraged” student mobility and “profoundly” altered the housing market for students, by increasing demand for term-time accommodation, and recommodifying housing surrounding universities into HMOs .
Private rented sector rents throughout Scotland have increased, on average, almost 25% over the past decade. Unsurprisingly, the greatest rent increases are clustered around the Central Belt, particularly, in Lothian (46%) and Greater Glasgow (41%) – areas with significant student populations .
The gentrification, or studentification, of university towns and cities results in the proliferation of shared and temporary housing , meaning many students live in transitory, insecure accommodation. Moreover, most students live in “relatively old housing stock, which is energy inefficient, requiring infrastructure improvements to make them more thermally efficient” .
Purpose-built student accommodation, a hypothetical panacea for student-renter influxes in university towns and cities, may, in reality, be adding to the burden on students.
New student housing is being built and existing student housing stock regenerated UK-wide to meet student housing demand. Luxury accommodation has become the norm with property investors capitalising on increased housing need, knowing students will pay premium for inner-city living – particularly near campus.
Even with the growth in purpose-built student accommodation in the private sector, however, there is still a lack of available and – critically – affordable student accommodation across the UK. Places like Edinburgh, for example, have a student-to-bed ratio of over 3:1, emphasising the pressure university towns and cities are under to house their growing student population(s) , , , .
The demand for purpose-built student accommodation outpaces its development, with contracts offered to students typically only covering the university calendar, leaving many students without accommodation over the summer months.
Given that accommodation offered to students is at prices comparable to the private rented sector, staying in university accommodation or in private halls, may, arguably, make students more housing insecure than renting from a private landlord.
Compounding the inherent uncertainty and cost of student renting, is the fact that most university students in Scotland are ineligible for Universal Credit, meaning they are reliant on student loan payments (including bursaries for low-income students) and financial support from family members to cover living costs.
Students without familial and institutional support(s) can supplement their income with part-time employment, but this is frequently precarious – involving zero-hours contracts, inconsistent shift-patterns, and working unsociable hours which can interfere with coursework and examinations.
Acknowledging these wider structural pressures impacting students paints a picture of potential housing precarity among university students in Scotland.
Narrowing entry gap: cause for celebration and concern?
In my position as a homelessness researcher at the University of Stirling, students in Scotland have reported to me: (i) spending a significant proportion of their household income on accommodation costs; (ii) finding it difficult to pay rent or bills; (iii) borrowing money to pay bills; (iv) struggling to afford food; (v) living in overcrowded accommodation; (vi) and moving in with others because of financial problems.
These facets of student life that many accept as part of the “student experience” – what some consider the inherent struggle of being a university student – in fact reveal behaviours which indicate housing insecurity and risk of homelessness.
The proportion of young people experiencing homelessness in Scotland has remained relatively constant while the proportion of young people attending university has grown.
In September 2020, almost 15% of 18-year-olds from the poorest areas in Scotland started full-time higher education . As we celebrate increasing numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being accepted into their chosen courses, the consequence may be increasing housing precarity on university campuses.
Growing student numbers mean a greater diversity of students attending university, and these are more likely to share the characteristics of those at risk of, or with experience of, homelessness – childhood poverty, family and relationship breakdown, care experience. Universities are, therefore, an “unexamined location of youth homelessness” .
Making the invisible visible
Internationally, very little is known about housing insecurity and homelessness among university students. A handful of studies investigating Higher Education homelessness have been conducted in the US and elsewhere in the UK , , , , but it is important we understand more about the Scottish context. Our project aims to start filling the evidence gap with research from Scotland.
If we acknowledge that higher education is “one of the only routes to upward mobility for those wanting to break the cycle of poverty” , it is imperative that we broaden our understanding of students’ housing experiences, acknowledging them as a potentially vulnerable and exploited group when discussing housing.
A higher education student survey has been launched to enable us to do, which can be accessed here.
We are also eager to speak with any university students or those who have recently graduated or left their course, who have experienced homelessness while studying. If you feel comfortable sharing your experiences with us, your insights would be valued and significant. You can contact us here.
 Scottish Government (2021) Support for students in hardship. Available at: www.gov.scot/news/support-for-students-in-hardship/
 The Guardian (2020) Hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland banned from socialising. The Guardian, 24 September 2020. Available at: www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/24/thousands-of-students-in-isolation-at-20-uk-universities
 BBC (2020) Covid student chaos: Paying £30k a year and begging security for food. BBC Scotland, 29 September 2020. Available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-54342186
 The Independent (2020) Students on rent strike occupy University of Manchester building. The Independent, 12 November 2020. Available at: www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/rent-strike-occupation-tower-university-of-manchester-protest-b1721893.html
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