In our guest blog, Vonnie Sandlan of NUS Scotland looks at what students want from new legislation on private renting.

Today MSPs will debate the principles of the much-needed Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill, set to rectify problems in a sector where the bulk of power lies with landlords, and rents rise at eye-watering rates year on year.

It’s fundamental to any debate to hear the views of the people most affected by the changes, which is why we were pleased to hear PRS 4 Scotland had conducted a survey of tenants’, including students’, views on the Bill. What came out of it, however, was perhaps less of a guide in understanding the need for reform – or how to achieve it – than would have helped.

For those who haven’t had the chance to scrutinise the survey as much as I have, I thought I’d highlight some of the biggest issues for NUS Scotland, and why the need for the Bill remains as strong as ever.

A one size fits all ‘Student Tenancy’?

You don’t have to look beyond the first few pages of this research before you have to raise some questions on the methodology. There are around 500,000 students in Scotland, many in the private rented sector. The findings here, however, are based on a sample of 363 students, less than 0.1% of the diverse student body Scotland has. I’m pretty sure you can get a more representative study going door to door in a block of halls.

There is fundamental problem with the way students are viewed in the context of tenancy reform, too; students are often seen as a homogenous group – 18 to 21; no special circumstances or needs; and studying on an undergraduate degree. But we don’t have that kind of student population and instead it’s one that is rightly, and proudly, diverse.

With diversity comes the need for a more flexible approach to renting, much like the greater flexibility offered in the Housing Bill. With the new proposals, students could still leave at the end of the academic year, or they could stay. It becomes up to the tenant to decide, which gives student tenants a much greater choice.

Students actually support the government’s tenancy proposal

Announcing the survey results, PRS  4 Scotland decided to run with a story that students ‘rejected’ the new flexible contracts, instead calling for a ‘student tenancy’.

In reality, when PRS 4 Scotland asked students if they thought the proposed new open-ended tenancy was preferable for them, 81% of students agreed or strongly agreed, with 7% not sure. Far from disagreeing, perhaps a more accurate headline would have been “13% of students we surveyed disagree with Government’s tenancy reform”, but I guess that’s not as catchy.

Students want a home, not temporary accommodation

There are some valid points raised in this survey. A lot of students (92%, in fact) said they like to know they’ve got somewhere to live in their next academic year. This a pretty basic wish we can all relate to. Thankfully, it’s also an idea that the Bill will tackle head on.

Far from the headline results – that the new contracts will make this more difficult – the survey actually highlights that in the right circumstances, up to 92% of the students they surveyed would give early notice. The idea that a student who wants a (for example) 9 month tenancy would simply remain in the property and fail to give notice to leave, and incur the rent that goes with that, seems baffling. This Bill is about empowering tenants to choose when to leave their property, not being forced into a box, or taking on a contract that doesn’t actually suit them.

So where do we go from here?

Quite simply, things need to change.

Tenants shouldn’t live with a constant uncertainty of where they’ll be living in a few months. Students shouldn’t be left paying rent on a property after their course has ended; they need to have contracts that meet their needs. Nobody should face an 11% increase in their rent year on year, just because the market enables it.

We strongly support the creation of a streamlined, simplified and clarified private residential tenancy, and welcome the recognition by the Government to the need for more flexibility and security of tenure for tenants in the private rented sector, and the start of some action to tackle inflated rents. It would be a shame to waste the chance to do that.

Vonnie Sandlan
President, NUS Scotland