Universities must do more, says thinktank, noting need for support for those from poorer backgrounds
Universities must do more to track and prevent student homelessness, which is expected to increase because of the cost of living crisis and widening participation in higher education, according to a report.
Students are less likely than their peers in the general population to experience homelessness, but with more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being admitted to universities experts say they could be at greater risk of homelessness and in need of extra support.
The report, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), says there is not enough data on homelessness among current and former students, despite evidence of “hidden homelessness” among students who are sofa surfing to keep a roof over their heads.
A survey by the National Union of Students in Scotland this year reported that 12% of students had experienced homelessness since starting their studies, rising to one in three among estranged and care-experienced students.
International students with children can also face difficulties finding accommodation and could therefore be at increased risk of homelessness. One student from Nigeria told the Guardian he had been in Airbnb and other short-let accommodation with his family for six months, unable to find suitable housing.
The Hepi report says universities should do more to research homelessness not just among current students but also former students among the 5.3% who drop out, and also recent graduates. They should also consider playing a wider role in supporting efforts to end all forms of homelessness, which tends to be higher in university towns and cities.
The report says students who are identified as either experiencing or at being risk of homelessness should receive targeted support, including short-term financial assistance or access to accommodation, especially at high-risk times such as over the summer break.
The report’s author, Greg Hurst, said: “Widening access to higher education means broadening the composition of a university’s student body and, therefore, admitting more students whose past experiences and circumstances mean they face a higher risk of homelessness.
“As we experience a surge in inflation to beyond 9%, this is likely to mean that from the autumn more students struggle to pay higher food and energy costs alongside their rent. Many universities could, and should, ask themselves if they are doing enough to prevent homelessness among their current and recent students.”
Patrick Mulrenan, associate professor of learning at London Metropolitan University, is a specialist in housing and inclusion. His research has highlighted homelessness as a hidden problem among students in London. He said students were sleeping on floors, staying with friends and relatives, or staying in hostels or in temporary council accommodation. Much of that, he said, was driven by the private rental sector and the precariousness caused by no-fault evictions.
“Whenever I do a lecture about homelessness I always get someone who contacts me afterwards to tell me that they are homeless. I thought we don’t know much about this so I put out an email to students in one school at the university asking about homelessness and I had 29 responses.
“I was really taken aback. We interviewed 16 of them and it came out very clearly it was massively affecting them personally, and their children. It was a real struggle for them, living in temporary accommodation, being moved around. One moved nine times. They were finding it very difficult to concentrate on their studies because always at the back of their mind was, ‘I’ve got to sort out my accommodation’.”
Those interviewed were mainly linked to a “widening participation background”, he said, and those with children were particularly at risk.
“Widening participation is fantastic but it’s bringing the sorts of groups that are most affected by homelessness into universities. It will inevitably lead to more students who are homeless. Widening participation is not just about recruiting people, it’s about supporting them through their studies.”
Universities UK, which represents the sector, said: “Universities have … stepped up their efforts to target money and mental health support where it is needed the most. But with the value of maintenance loans falling to its lowest level in seven years, this will not be enough for many.
“The government must be alive to concerns and stand ready to offer additional support to struggling students and we urge those worried about their financial situation to talk to their university.”