It is hardly surprising, in an era in which higher education has become so commercialised that even Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary would blush to think that the amount students are asked to pay for the privilege of living in student halls has more than doubled since 2002. Inflation has been low, and yet, rents have gone up, and up, and up. In light of this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you might be something of a cash cow. You, as a first year undergraduate, are paying a lot more but you are not necessarily getting anymore for your parents’ hard-earned cash or your pricey student loan.
How exactly did such substantial increases in rents come about? Well, the long and short of it is, that prior to 2002, the University mismanaged its finances so badly that it had to sell off some of its halls of residence to pay its £30million debts. It sold to Sanctuary Students, in the guise of Glasgow Student Villages. The solution was simple: outsource student residences and raise a tonne of cash in the process. A win for the University, but a loss for students when rents immediately went up. It is impossible to say how much rents would have gone up over the same period had those residences not been sold off, but as it stands, a generation of students has paid the price for the incompetence of senior management. An apology, at the very least, would be welcome.
The University insists that those residences that are part of the GSV portfolio are not run for profit and any surpluses are invested back into the fabric and services of the building. Any students living in Murano, for example, would find that proposition laughable. The comparison between Murano Student Village and a Sweden prison has become a cliché. There may well have been improvements since 2002, but are residence such as Murano really twice as good as they were in 2002? If the list of problems, intermittently posted on social media, is anything to go by, then we suspect not.
So far, it looks like an open-and-shut case of shameless profiteering on the part of a private company. Not so. As is the case with Wolfson Halls, the University sets the rates. If there has been profiteering going on, despite assurances, then the University has almost certainly been complicit in it. Ask yourself, is it fair that a student from England, Wales or Northern Ireland, who pays £6750 a year to study here, and has no option but to live away from home, to pay an additional £4400 a year in rent to live in accommodation that many have complained is substandard? If you’ve lived in student halls, and you feel as if you’ve been overcharged, then it’s the University, first and foremost, you should blame. We have seen no evidence – although we are fully prepared to be corrected – that the University has made any effort to hold down rents in GSV residences.
The SRC is doing what the SRC should do. It has petitioned the University Court to have the contract with GSV “wound down” which the University has an opportunity to do as the campus redevelopment proceeds. It’s one of the few examples of the “beige” being “burned”. The arrangement with Sanctuary Students hasn’t worked, and the unjustifiable increases in rent are one amongst many symptoms of that. More importantly, however, as the campus redevelopment becomes a reality, the University will be making decisions about student halls in the next decade. Should the University own all its halls? Should it own some of them? Where should those halls be? The outcome of those decisions is not yet known, but value for money and a high-quality student experience must be at the centre of the University’s approach. Students do not necessarily mind paying a lot of money to live in halls; but if they are not getting a lot for their money, questions have to be asked and answers must be given. As our colleague Harry Vizor argued in an opinion piece earlier this year, going to University is expensive enough as it is. Unjustifiable increases in rents in student residences are an expense that the vast majority of students simply do not need.