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University spends millions on rooms sitting empty

Data seen by The Glasgow Guardian suggests there to be over 500 empty rooms in University-owned accommodation.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request obtained by The Glasgow Guardian has revealed substantial decreases in the overall occupancy rates of student accommodation available to University of Glasgow (UofG) students compared with the previous academic year.

The occupancy rate of beds within student accommodation owned by the University of Glasgow stands, as of 12 October 2023, at 85.35%. This represents a decrease of 12.59 percentage points compared with the occupancy rate on the same date in 2022, which was 97.94%. The occupancy rate for beds leased by the University via nomination agreements with local private accommodation providers has also decreased. Such agreements involve the University filling beds in buildings owned and managed by private companies. While the occupancy rate for these bedspaces stood at 99.52% on 12 October 2022, on the same date this year the occupancy rate was 87.79%, representing a decrease of 11.73 percentage points.

The FoI request response also confirms that only 12 additional beds can be found in University-owned accommodation as of 12 October 2023 – 3,406 beds – compared with this date last year, on which there were 3,394 beds. With an 85.35% occupancy rate, that means on 12 October 2023, there were approximately 511 vacant rooms in University-owned accommodation. 

There is a much larger increase in the number of beds procured by the University through nomination agreements with private providers compared with last year. While the total number of beds sourced this way was 827 as of 12 October 2022, on 12 October 2023 there were an additional 2,391 beds. It is noted that such an increase pertains to bedspaces in buildings which were already inhabited prior to this academic year, but, until the establishment of the nomination agreements, were wholly under the purview of private accommodation providers. As a result of the nomination agreements, UofG students are now able to rent these rooms through the University of Glasgow itself as their landlord. This context also demonstrates that the lower occupancy rates of student accommodation exist in the absence of a significant increase in the supply of bedspaces in Glasgow.

According to UofG’s local agreements register, the total cost of the nomination agreements entered into with private accommodation providers stands in excess of £93 million. One example is an agreement with the company Student Roost – costing £2,428,620 – which permits the University to provide beds in a building called Dobbie’s Point for 18 months only, between 28 March 2023 and 24 August 2024. Other contracts – such as a £26,032,080 agreement with Prestige Student Living to provide beds in Havannah House – can last much longer, up to 5 years.

In the previous academic year, due to demand for beds greatly exceeding supply, the University revoked their guarantee that all incoming first-year students who requested a room in student accommodation would receive an offer for one, and housed homeless students in hotels. The University, in response to the ‘Cap Student Numbers Now!’ campaign by the Student Representative Council (SRC), subsequently committed to zero growth in student numbers for the 2023/24 academic year, “in recognition of the current pressures on accommodation”. The SRC pointed to data which revealed the number of students at UofG to have increased by 40% in the five years preceding their campaign. Figures for the number of students enrolled at the University of Glasgow for the 2023/24 academic year are yet to be released. 

Despite the lower occupancy rates of student accommodation compared with the previous academic year, rooms within them are now significantly more expensive. An ensuite silver room in the aforementioned Dobbie’s Point building for the academic year 2022/23 cost between £165 and £172 per week, whereas the same room this year is £199 per week – an increase of around 20%, and for a standard 51-year contract, will cost a student £10,149 per year, compared with £8,415 the previous year.

Kiki Chan, a third-year Law and Politics student at UofG, stayed at Dobbie’s Point before it was leased to the University, but due to the increases in rent, has now found somewhere else to live through the private rented sector. She told The Glasgow Guardian: “I’ve been lucky enough to receive a substantial student maintenance loan in comparison to other students I know, so I was surprised to find I couldn’t afford the basic rooms at Dobbies for my 3rd year. Even if I received the maximum maintenance loan I would still be out of pocket before I’d even considered a year’s worth of food and other essentials. 

“The accommodation isn’t bad, the rooms are modern and warm. But they are very small for over 10k a year. You can walk to campus in about 40 minutes, but in winter I would avoid walking in the dark. In practice, it would take me around an hour to get from there to campus, taking into account late buses and getting to the bus station. It wouldn’t be a problem if the accommodation was reasonably priced but often I wondered why I was paying so much for an inconvenience.

“Accommodation prices keep going up and up, yet most people’s maintenance loans don’t. I don’t understand how they expect us to keep up with the difference.”

The University adopted smaller rent increases for the accommodation that it owns: a single standard room in Cairncross House cost £134.47 per week in 2022/23, while the same room this year costs £147.21, an increase of 9.5%. Nonetheless, this increase was deemed “unjustified” by the SRC when it was first proposed by the University, citing their large financial surplus. The amount of financial support provided to students in the form of maintenance loans has not substantially risen this academic year, with those provided by the UK government increasing by only 2%. Purpose Built Student Accommodation has been exempted from the 3% cap on private rents implemented by the Scottish Government.

A University spokesperson said: “The University has worked to increase the number of rooms under university management by 67% in the last two years to ensure the guarantee of accommodation for first year undergraduates. We are accommodating all first-year undergraduates who applied this year.

“A proposed increase in rent is below the rate of inflation, as it has been for five consecutive years. The university is always seeking to improve the accommodation it provides and a rent increase is required to allow for continued maintenance and refurbishment of rooms as well as increased staffing costs.”

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