Dundee and Edinburgh officials call time on escalating student rents
NEW POWERS to cap private rents should be used to improve access to education, according to senior officials at Dundee and Edinburgh universities.
Professor Pete Downes, principal of the University of Dundee, and Rebecca Gaukroger, director of admissions at the University of Edinburgh, both backed the proposal during a Perth fringe meeting on improving access to higher education institutions.
The Private Housing (Tenancies) Act 2016 gives councils the power to limit out of control rent costs through applying for a ‘cap’ in ‘high pressure’ areas, many of which are concentrated near higher education campuses.
Campaigners have called for action to halt rent increases, which are the top financial pressure on students who have to pay for accommodation as part of their studies.
Principal Downes, responding to a question from CommonSpace on the issue, said: “It would be a nice idea”, specifying that he would support action to cap rent in the private rented sector – although he said rent capping in halls would be difficult where there were pre-existing agreements.
Gaukroger also expressed concern at the escalation in rent costs, and backed action to limit the financial burden on tenants.
She explained that a £2,000 accommodation grant is provided by Edinburgh university, which had the power to be “life changing” as it widened access by offsetting high living costs.
However, under the current system this means that the university – and associated public funding – subsidises the price rises in the private rental market.
“Undoubtedly there are issues around the geographic mobility of students in Scotland. Particularly students who want to go to university on the west of Scotland. They will stay put,” Gaukroger explained.
“It’s undoubtedly the case that the cost of living away from home is a barrier to students looking for places at university further afield. That’s why we’ve introduced the accommodation bursary
“That suggests that was a barrier,” Gaukroger added.
Gaukroger added to CommonSpace that the university hoped living in Edinburgh, including rents, could be more affordable so that targets on equal access could be met.
In practice, for Edinburgh to have 20 per cent of its university role from the bottom 20 per cent of SIMD (inequality measurement) areas, many of these students would have to come from areas outside of the city – meaning living in the city would have to be affordable.
Campaigners Living Rent previously advanced this argument: that rent controls are necessary if the government and universities are serious about making universities accessible to people from less wealthy backgrounds.
SNP councillor Angus Millar was elected earlier this year on a specific pledge to supporting the introduction of rent controls in the central Glasgow district.
The government’s widening access report, which set ambitious targets on expanding university access, excluded the housing issue from its deliberations – despite student groups highlighting housing concerns as one of their top problems.
Edinburgh Napier University student Gary Donaldson, also speaking at the event, added: “I know it does not work [accommodation prices]. The private [rented] area, definitely. It’s a real problem, especially in places like Edinburgh.”
Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie MSP added: “For a huge number of people now the private rented sector is the only housing our society makes available to them. Owner occupier housing unaffordable. Socially rented housing unavailable. They are left between a rock and a hard place.”
The current student bursary system means that young people in full time education often receive students loans – if they qualify for them – yet see that finance eaten up by high rent costs, while lacking the opportunity to work available to other tenants.
Picture courtesy of Living Rent
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