Ben Murphy discusses the housing challenges students have faced during the pandemic.
One of the most vociferous complaints of students since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has surrounded the issue of student housing. Housing is a prominent issue in our national politics, and the nationwide issues of housing supply, quality, and cost, are only exaggerated in the student context. These issues have often been ignored by national policymakers, who tend to focus their attention on housing policies that are directed at adults and families. There also exists a widespread sense in the country that the pitfalls of student housing is somehow 'natural', or part of the experience of further education. During the coronavirus pandemic, this culture of neglect has only worsened.
Across the country, Students have suffered from two parallel crises during this pandemic; a crisis of rent for unoccupied rooms; and a crisis of stress and insecurity caused by poor government guidance. Dealing with these problems requires policy changes that are able to address the unique circumstances arising from the coronavirus pandemic, and that will stand the test of time. The coronavirus pandemic has not directly caused any of these issues, it has merely worsened them.
The Crisis of Rent
The cost of student housing is eye-watering. The average student residing in university halls will pay over £650 per month for their accommodation, rising to more than £800 per month for students in London. Given that universities are asking students to pay monthly rent that is not far from the cost of an average mortgage payment, this arrangement reeks of exploitation. The financial burden of rent is a crisis in normal times. Many students are unable to cover the cost of rent from their maintenance loans alone, forcing them into part-time jobs that can distract from their education.
One worldwide pandemic later, and the situation has deteriorated significantly. Many students have found the part-time jobs they rely on to cover the cost of rent have disappeared; many more still have found themselves furloughed, receiving just 80% of their normal income. This typical consequence of a recession has been joined by the added scandal of millions of students being forced to pay rent for properties they are legally prohibited from living in. Prior to the introduction of lockdown restrictions in March 2020, hundreds of thousands of students headed home, likely aware of the possibility they would remain trapped in their student accommodation for months if they remained. These students were correct, but found themselves paying hundreds of pounds per month for a room that they no longer lived in, and with no means of correcting this injustice.
In December 2020, this scandal was repeated. The government asked students to head home for the Christmas break, even establishing specific dates they should do so. This was followed by the implementation of a strict national lockdown, once again preventing students from returning to the properties they were still required to pay for. Yet while there have been warm words from policymakers and universities across the country about this issue, no action has been taken.
The success of rent strikes in several English universities - my own University of Manchester included - sheds light on the injustices that have been faced by many students and young people in the past year. Rent strikes also highlight the level of anger felt by young people on university campuses across the country. Students are well aware that they are being exploited. Policymakers must realize this too, and do something about it.
The Crisis of Bad Guidance
Despite our divisive political climate, the government has been successful in unifying the country in opposition to its confused and often contradictory lockdown guidance. The communications strategy - or lack thereof - used by the government has had a profoundly damaging impact on the state of public health. It has also had an acute impact on the mental wellbeing of students, by introducing an element of insecurity and uncertainty over their living situation.
This is a far greater issue than it seems. Imagine, for a moment, that you know you are likely to have to move across the country at some point in the near future - but you don’t know exactly when. You may be greeted by familiar faces in the form of your housemates, or you may find yourself entirely alone. All of this while being expected to work towards a university degree in a new and largely untested way. It is little wonder, then, that over half of students say their mental health has been negatively affected by the pandemic. Poor guidance from the government and from universities is unlikely to be the sole cause of this, but it is difficult to deny that it has significantly contributed to worsening mental health on campuses across the country.
Ben Murphy is a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester. He is the Secretary of the University of Manchester Young Fabians and the Gay Officer for the Young Fabians LGBTQIA+ Advocacy Group. He tweets at @benmurph99.