Within about 24 hours of a ‘Glasgow Uni Rent Strike’ social media campaign starting, university principal Anton Muscatelli stepped in with a one-month re-fund “to compensate for the disruption they are facing”. It appeared to be some sort of admission of guilt that there was, at minimum, a lack of institutional preparation for students moving into purpose-built accommodation this year. Not testing students before they moved in on mass seems like a major oversight.
Students are right to question the basis upon which they’ve been invited to move in to halls of residence’ this year. Having lived in student accommodation as a first year, I can tell you from experience it would not be a good environment to live out a pandemic. Packed in like a tin of sardines with boxes for bedrooms and a shared kitchen which would not look out of place in a one-bedroom flat, physical distancing is a big ask. Murano Street hals, where one of the covid-19 clusters has emerged, is the cheapest available student accommodation at Glasgow University, and has been compared to a Swedish prison in design. The psychological transition from school to university in this sort of built environment is hard enough at the best of times – it must be hellish if you aren’t actually allowed to leave your box room.
Purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) is of course big business, after it was widely privatised in the 1990s and 2000s, with the rent costs surging thereafter. Glasgow University outsourced most of its accommodation in 2002. One study found the UK PBSA market to now be worth over £45 billion. Students moving to a new city and sometimes a new country are a captive market for halls of residence accommodation, having not yet met friends and got to know the city they are moving into.
PBSA developers also benefit from a favourable regulatory and tax environment. Student housing is not considered to be in the housing use-class, meaning laws which apply to all other housing on room size, windows and quality of material do not apply. Hence the tiny box-rooms. No business rates apply on PBSA developments, and neither does section 106, which forces developers to build a per centage of affordable housing accommodation in any development. Unsurprisingly, such a lucrative investment has attracted the attention of the offshore industry.
The Scottish Government has now issued new guidance to students, so that they can return to their family house if there is an emergency or if they plan to move back in permanently. NUS Scotland President Matt Crilly has welcomed the new guidance, but questioned why the Scottish Government “continues to talk up in-person teaching”, calling on the government to make remote learning “the default”. That is an idea which will cause university marketing departments a headache: would students from rUK and internationally continue to pay through the nose for degrees if they are doing the whole thing from the bedroom of their parents’ house? Part of the lure of a degree is the formative social experience of living with young people in a new city. Fears that international students would stop coming this year have largely turned out to be misplaced, but what about next year if remote learning becomes normalised?
Of course there is an argument which says that a student year is eight to nine months long, not a few weeks – perhaps things will get better. Then again, perhaps they won’t. A lack of planning based on ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ scenarios has led to the current student crisis. We should all start operating based on the presumption that the pandemic is not going away, regardless of whether that’s good for business or not.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.