Students out of pocket when the rent is due

Hazel Shearing 31 October 2013

After uproar over the 9.5% rent increase at Caius in recent weeks, The Cambridge Student has found that at least three colleges at Cambridge rent accommodation to students at prices that far exceed their student maintenance loan.

The minimum maintenance loan for students living outside of London is set at £3,575 for the academic year 2013-2014. However, the cheapest category of undergraduate accommodation at some colleges exceeds this by nearly £250 every year. This has led some students living in Cambridge to seek out other sources of paying for their accommodation.

The amount by which colleges surpass the loan varies. According to Newnham’s website, undergraduates this year will be expected to pay a minimum of £131 per week on a 30-week license. This amounts to £3,930 per year, exceeding the minimum annual maintenance loan by £355. With an additional kitchen charge of £253 per term, this sets undergraduates back considerably.

At Girton, undergraduates in the 2011/12 cohort will have to find a minimum of £245 on top of their maintenance loan this year. According to the college, the cheapest residence charge for this specific cohort amounts to £3,820 per year.

Students at St Edmunds are charged between October and June on a quarterly basis, the minimum quarterly charge for all students starting from 2010 onwards costing students £1,262. This costs students at least £3,786 per year – £211 on top of their annual loans.

Richard Anthony, bursar at St Edmund’s College, justified this excess by claiming, “All our undergraduates are mature, i.e. 21 and over, and the majority are overseas. Therefore their accommodation needs are often different from standard age undergraduates and have more in common with graduates.”

The figures above are based on the cheapest possible category of accommodation at colleges, although due to the balloting systems used by most colleges, students cannot always guarantee a space in the cheapest rooms. Of the colleges that responded, Caius, Christ’s, Corpus, Downing, Emma, Fitzwilliam, Homerton, Magdalene, Murray Edwards, Pembroke, Queens’, Robinson, Selwyn, Sidney, St John’s, Trinity, Trinity Hall and Wolfson all provide at least one type of accommodation at an annual rent below the student loan.

Trinity Hall provides the cheapest accommodation among the colleges surveyed. Undergraduates can pay as little as £1,794 for a 30 week rent.

Murray Edwards is a unique case, renting out rooms for £2,901 this year if students are willing to share. One student living in such a room said: “The rent for the room is split down the middle, but we’re paying separate utility bills. This doesn’t seem fair because some students have the same sized room to themselves, and would be using the same lighting and heating as the two of us”.

Faced with these figures, many undergraduates have no choice but to subsidise their maintenance loan by applying for bursaries and grants – should they be entitled to them – digging into an overdraft, or relying on their parents and families. Considering that the figures stated above are the very cheapest categories of accommodation in these colleges, it follows that most students will be paying even more.

While the costs of each college and each university varies depending on how long the lets are, the difference between a 29 and a 51 week rent means little to Cambridge students who are asked to pay a fixed annual rent regardless of how many weeks they spend in their accommodation.

Despite these high costs, the situation is not currently deemed severe enough to warrant a higher loan. First year undergraduates at London universities this year receive a loan of £4,998 – nearly 40% higher than the rest of the country. However, the minimum accommodation costs at UCL, Imperial, Kings, LSE and Queen Mary leave students with at least £500 left of their maintenance loan after payment. Renting accommodation in London can be as low as £2,340 per year for students sharing a twin room at Imperial’s South Kensington campus.

City is a large exception to this rule. In response to a Freedom of Information request, TCS was told that the cheapest category of accommodation for undergraduates at City costs £7,791 per year.

On a national scale, the top universities vary greatly in their minimum costs. The cheapest accommodation at Exeter, widely considered to be one of the most expensive among UK universities, is £65 per week for an ‘economy’ single room in university houses, amounting to an annual cost of £2,874 – well below the maintenance grants. Durham, however, ranks alongside the more expensive Cambridge colleges. According to the website, the 2013/14 cost of a self-catered standard room let is £4,230 – £655 above undergraduates’ annual maintenance loan.

The distinguishing factor for Cambridge students, however, is that students usually live in college accommodation throughout their whole undergraduate study. In other universities students tend to rent privately.

A second year student at Cardiff University said, “I pay £290 a month, or £73 per week, although that’s excluding bills. That’s standard Cardiff rent and compared to what other people pay it’s relatively good. The house is spacey, we all have double rooms, there’s a bathroom between five of us, a downstairs toilet and the kitchen is pretty modern”.

Colum McGuire, NUS Welfare Vice President, told The Cambridge Student the NUS’ concerns about “skyrocketing student rents, which [are] leaving fewer reasonably priced accommodation options for students from lower and middle income backgrounds who are really feeling the pinch.

“NUS research shows that accommodation costs have doubled in ten years, revealing that universities are adopting aggressive rent strategies rather than supplying a supportive service to students.

“The responsibility of universities to support their students does not begin and end at the doors of the lecture hall. Universities should urgently be looking at properly planning accommodation supply and capping rent increases to ensure students are not priced out of living in halls.”