Sky-high rents leaving many students here with meagre £29 a week to live on – Belfast Telegraph

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Situation ‘pricing those from poorer background out of higher education’
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NUS-USI’s Ellen Fearon
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The cost of accommodation is leaving university students with just £29 a week to live on, according to new research.
NUS-USI president Ellen Fearon said the findings, which show 81% of student finance is spent on rent, shed new light on the extent of the financial crisis facing many, meaning those from disadvantaged backgrounds are being priced out of higher education.
“These figures starkly demonstrate the significant financial pressures students are facing,” she said.
“When so much of student finance, in many cases 100% of a student’s loan or grant, is going straight into rent payments, we have to ask who benefits from these policy decisions: the student or the private property developer?”
The research by student housing charity Unipol and the NUS revealed the average annual rent for purpose-built accommodation here during a 40-week term was £5,256.
The maximum finance available to undergraduates is £6,428, leaving them with just £29.30 per week to live on.
Postgraduate students are not entitled to any maintenance support.
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In 2020/21 private providers charged students an average of £6,698 for accommodation, which is higher than the maximum student finance allowance.
Those in university accommodation were charged an average of £4,565 for the academic year, or 71% of the maximum finance allowance.
All additional living costs have to be covered by parental contribution or alternative sources.
“Many of our politicians see attracting more private providers as the answer to all our problems, but this report demonstrates that this could not be further from the case,” said Miss Fearon.
“We need to see more imagination from our leaders and a commitment to providing homes which the ordinary student can actually afford to live in.
“Students need to be guaranteed safe, affordable, good quality accommodation while they complete their studies.
“Anything less creates an education system where only the wealthy have the chance to thrive. We need to see a Student Renters Bill introduced which guarantees students this basic right.”
The findings form part of the Accommodation Costs Survey 2021/22 with respondents covering 473,684 purpose-built rooms, an estimated 68% of the university accommodation market.
Northern Ireland has typically relied on university-owned accommodation and the private rental sector to provide rooms, but there has been a recent move to attract more private sector providers to meet an increase in demand.
In Britain private providers increasingly dominate the market, now accounting for over three-quarters of rooms in the purpose-built sector.
Many institutions have chosen to leave future housing provision to the private purpose-built sector; but while standards are high, so are rents. And as older stock with cheaper rents gets replaced with en suite and studio rooms, the availability of lower cost accommodation is reduced.
The survey showed the move to rely on private providers had also blurred the lines of on-site pastoral care and mental health support, and where the responsibility lies.
In 2021, 42% of university respondents across the UK reported that all staff who interacted with tenants had received mental health first aid training.
The private sector is lagging behind, with only 24% of staff holding the same qualification.
Unipol chief executive Martin Blakey said student halls were expensive and prices were only getting higher.
“The student maintenance system is broken and unless students can access help from parents or part-time work, many would find it difficult to pay these rent levels,” he added.
“If access to higher education is to be maintained and enhanced, then poorer students need affordable accommodation to enable them to study at a university of their choice or accommodation providers need to provide help through targeted accommodation bursaries.”
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