Colleges’ rent gulf revealed

2 February 2018

Although national media outlets have a tendency to paint Cambridge students as a homogenous beige mass of privilege, the real picture is more complex. Life at one college can be entirely different from the next, due to differences in facilities, location and policy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the huge range in weekly rents available.

An investigation carried out by TCS has revealed that, at the lower end of the scale, £70 a week is enough to stay at Peterhouse and Trinity Hall, while Girtonians must shell out £160 for even the worst rooms. Such a huge spread of minimum rents creates significant disparities in a less well off student’s ability to enjoy Cambridge life, especially given that many are not aware of the price of accommodation when applying. This by and large has been the focus of Cut the Rent, which so far has only campaigned at Murray Edwards, Robinson and Magdalene. While for the former two, minimum rates are significantly above average, Magdalene students can pay around £103 each week for the cheapest room – hardly an outlier when 18 other colleges face minimum rents of £100+ a week. Whether the movement will spread to these colleges remains to be seen.

Girton rent increases

Girton rent increases

Interestingly, many of the distant colleges have fairly high rents in comparison to the more central ones. Pembroke, Trinity, St Catherine’s, Clare and Sidney Sussex students can all rent for below £90 a week, while as discussed Girton and Murray Edwards pay high rates. This suggests land value has very little bearing on the cost of rent. In a statement concerning these statistics, Murray Edwards College said:

"Murray Edwards College, like other Colleges at the University of Cambridge, is a charity – and our students are the principal beneficiaries of this charity. In no way does the College wish to extract money wilfully from students. As beneficiaries of the charity, the financial benefits which students receive are significant and arise in two main ways. Firstly, there is a significant subsidy which the College provides to the cost of their education: fees received do not cover the costs of that education, and the subsidy here totals more than £5,000 per undergraduate student per year. Secondly, rents do not cover the costs of the accommodation, and so these represent a further subsidy.  Rent calculations are discussed with the JCR and MCR annually, and any student who wishes to know more about this is welcome to make an appointment with the Bursar. It is worth noting that in calculating rent the College takes into account the importance of those who look after student rooms (cleaners, maintenance) receiving a Living Wage."

The College also clarified that:  

"We recognise that students can and do experience financial hardship and that rent can be a component in this, and would urge any student finding themselves in this situation to speak to the Finance Tutor at their College who will help them apply for hardship funding. No student should be in the position of considering leaving Cambridge due to financial concerns."

Yet also interesting to consider is the difference between the maximum and minimum rents at each college. The cheapest room at Downing costs £116 per week, which while not exactly low, is dwarfed by £198 rent on its most expensive room. Other offenders in this area include Queens, with an £82 maximum-minimum disparity, and Churchill, where rents start at £98.40 but stretch all the way to £179.40. Such disparities raise questions as to whether colleges are perpetuating pre-existing economic inequalities between students by charging hugely variable rents. Admittedly the higher rents likely subsidise lower rents, making university more affordable for students from poorer backgrounds. The alternative is a having a flat rent like Girton, which removes inequality but as discussed, massively raises minimum rent.

Girton's Accommodation Officer Dan Edwards welcomed the findings, and recognised that while some students at Girton like having a flat rate for rent "others feel it doesn't suit their needs.

"The system is open to revision. The JCR is currently in negotiations with college over proposed rent increases."

Peterhouse's President Bec Robsinson responded by explaining the college's hidden charges: "we have a kitchen fixed charge of £184, a minimum spend in hall of £98 and an electricity bill of around £30 each term. £70 is one of the lower options – most are a bit more than that but the rent prices here are definitely super reasonable and priced differently per room."

Of course these conclusions should be taken with a pinch of salt. Our figures only give the maximum and minimum rents available, as opposed to the mean rent, which gives better a representation of the cost of accomodation at each college. This is largely because these figures are not readily provided by colleges. Given the significance of rent to a prospective student’s ability to afford Cambridge, this is especially surprising, however might be explained by the university’s desire to avoid segregating students by familial wealth.