The rent rollercoaster

Deputy News Editor 13 November 2008

Student rents in Cambridge have risen by up to 9% on last year’s prices at some colleges, according to figures obtained by The Cambridge Student (TCS). This has come at a time when living costs for students at the University appear to be rising across the board, with many colleges also increasing food and drink prices as a result of general world-wide price inflation.

On average, colleges have increased rents by approximately 6% compared to Michaelmas 2007, with the average weekly price of a room in Cambridge now standing at approximately £77.

There was, of course, great variation between the rises experienced at different colleges. Whilst Peterhouse topped the table at 9.19%, students at Clare face only a 2.9% increase in the costs of college accommodation.

But these figures, for some colleges at least, mask potentially higher financial burdens placed on students by rising energy costs – factored into rent in only some of Cambridge’s colleges.

At Queen’s college, for example, heating costs have risen 80% this year alone, causing many students to feel disgruntled – despite more reasonable accommodation price rises of between 6.49 and 6.99%.

After these rent rises some students can expect to pay up to £193 a week for a college-provided room in Cambridge. Most colleges, however, still provide accommodation within a more reasonable range – on average between £58 and £95 per week.

The great variation in changes to room prices stems in part from the different systems used to calculate college rents. Dick Taplin, Bursar at Downing, where rents have risen by 6.49%, explained their system:

“The overall increase is based on an agreed basket of indices: RPI (representing costs of utilities, which are included in rent) 20%; Annual Wage Inflation (to cover staff costs) 25%; and the Regional Building & Construction Index (covering maintenance, repair and improvements) 55%.”

Many colleges use similar mixed indicators to determine the economic context within which to assess rent changes. Processes vary, however, not only in the data used to reach agreement on rents, but also on the timing of these decisions, and when they will impact students. Indeed, Downing is itself among those colleges considering a ‘flat-rate’ system, similar to that currently adopted by Girton, for example.

Girton’s JCR treasurer, Andy Russell, told TCS:

“At Girton we just have one flat rate of rent which is fixed for your first three years as an undergraduate…there is a rent rise each year in line with various inflation figures and expected figures for the next couple of years (due to the flat rate system) but the idea is that people know exactly how much they will be paying at the start of their course and so rent can’t be raised once you are here.”

It is suggested that such a system mediates the impact of rent changes, as students don’t face unexpected changes in the rents they will be charged each year. The disadvantage, though, is that such a system essentially requires the college to ‘bet’ on inflation of the various costs contributing to accommodation prices. As such, this system has not yet been adopted widely by colleges.

In defence of current systems, several colleges were keen to assure TCS that, whichever they were using to determine rent rises, there was usually consultation with the student body via the JCRs. Many suggested that it was this consultation that avoided greater levels of confrontation between the college and the student body over rents.

At Newnham, where complaints over rent rises were high last year, Freya Morrissey, JCR President, clarified that:

“Much of the problem was caused by a lack of communication, as much as the increase itself…Productive meetings have taken place this year to try to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.”

When asked by TCS about the level of consultation with students over changes in rent, all who replied, from Trinity to Homerton, described meetings between the JCR or Student’s Union and college committees. Colleges assured TCS that, whilst these meetings were not necessarily decisive, their conclusions were considered closely when final decisions on rent were taken.

But a former JCR President, who did not want to be named, suggested that this was far from being the case. He told TCS:

“In my experience, debating fees and charges with College is a horrible thing to do and rent negotiations, in particular, are a huge source of friction. When the Master calls you to tell you you’re doing a bad job by simply trying to secure a fair deal for students, you know things have got serious. You’d be surprised how petty it can get when there’s money involved.”

College administrations have been adamant in their correspondence with TCS that pricing fairly reflected the service students receive.

“There are always complaints about rent increases.” Dick Taplin argues.

“Everyone would like to have an en-suite room for £25 a week or less. However, the reality of the situation is that student rents probably do not even cover half the real cost of maintaining, heating, lighting and cleaning their accommodation.”

Whilst formal complaints have not been particularly high following the latest round of rent rises, many students remain quietly disgruntled at the failure of college’s to subsidise accommodation further, with very few negotiating rent rises below inflation.

Ant Bagshaw, Deputy President of CUSU, told TCS that he felt such rises were not justified by increased costs to colleges. In response to the latest developments in rent prices, he commented:

“Some of the rent increases are ridiculous: why should anyone, especially students, be forced to swallow such obscene above-inflation price increases?

“Students should be seen as a long-term investment – the rising power of development offices in colleges means that ever greater emphasis is placed on the importance of old members’ donations – maybe colleges shouldn’t unilaterally enforce huge rent increases with a view to students giving more in the future.”

Anna Croall

Deputy News Editor