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Calls to cap student numbers as UK housing crisis continues

The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis as student numbers grow. At the start of the 2021/22 academic year, universities including Glasgow warned international students that accommodation wouldn’t be guaranteed.

Affordability issues are exacerbated by the changing demographics of incoming students. Photo: iStock.

Growth will continue to stagnate given rising inflation, escalating building costs and land availability

Russell Group universities including Manchester and Durham even paid students to defer.

When Geneviève Godin arrived in Manchester in mid-September, two weeks after her postgraduate course began, she was surprised to find the private accommodation she had paid for was unclean and covered in mould. 

She said the University of Manchester was slow to issue her offer and provide the details she needed to apply for a visa due to the high volume of applications it received for this year’s intake. 

“By the time mine came, all of the rooms were already booked and I was on several waiting lists until the very last minute when a private student accommodation called me and offered me a room,” the French-Canadian postgraduate student said.  

Due to health problems, Godin didn’t want to risk remaining in the housing, despite having paid for the year’s accommodation upfront. But finding an alternative was harder than she expected. 

“There seemed to be this general trend of everything being overbooked,” Godin said. “The university offered an accommodation guarantee, but that doesn’t guarantee that the accommodation will be in Manchester. I was hearing these stories of people who are being placed in accommodation as far as Liverpool.” 

During the months that followed, Godin said she came across landlords asking her to rent without a viewing, agents telling students to bid for accommodation and, in one case, a landlord demanding a non-refundable deposit in order to secure a viewing.

Multiple properties were only available if she could provide recommendations from previous UK landlords or employers and provide a UK-based guarantor – something she was unable to do as an international student. Throughout her search, Godin has been paying to stay in a hotel. 

Mohammed Rafique, CEO at accommodation company Feel at Home, told The PIE he had met several international students facing a similar situation to Godin. 

“They had to cancel their course and come back because they couldn’t afford to pay anymore”

“I know a few students who travelled to Belfast in September,” he said. “They didn’t have accommodation pre-arranged with us or with any of the realtor agents. What happened to them is that they stayed in a hotel for a month or two, and they had to cancel their course and come back because they couldn’t afford to pay anymore.”

While the UK’s international student population accelerates, the development of student housing has slowed, in part due to the pandemic. According to Cushman & Wakefield, 2021/22 saw the delivery of 24,612 new beds – only 677 higher than that in 2020/21.

Analysts predict that growth will continue to stagnate given rising inflation, escalating building costs and land availability, among other factors. Incoming legislation that will give tenants more rights are also increasingly turning private landlords off renting to the seemingly less-reliable student market. 

As a result, students face increased stress and costs. The average annual private sector rent outside London is £7,055 and private rents have risen by 19% since 2016/17. In some cases, students are asked to pay 6 or 12 months rent up front. 

Accommodation that caters to international students is facing a unique demographic challenge, as affordability issues are exacerbated by the changing demographics of incoming students. The number of Indian students choosing to study in the UK is increasing, while growth of Chinese students has slowed. 

“The Chinese middle class population is currently estimated to be around 7.5 times larger than that of India, and with Indian GDP per capita only 18% of the level seen in China, price sensitivity is a far greater concern,” Cushman & Wakefield noted in its report

Now, some students have had enough. The University of Glasgow’s student union launched a campaign in November calling on the institution to cap student numbers, after a 40% rise over the past five years. 

“I think the university will have to step in”

“The strain on the campus and the wider Glasgow community is becoming increasingly clear,” the students wrote in a statement. “Many students are commuting long distances because of the lack of accommodation; some are trapped in a cycle of couch surfing or even sleeping rough”. 

Rafique believes that universities should act as a guarantor to help international students secure accommodation. If not, students may start capping themselves. In India, Rafique says, education agents are already discouraging students from applying to the cities facing severe accommodation shortages. Where they will turn is unclear as the UK isn’t unique in its accommodation problems – parts of Ireland, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands are all facing similar capacity problems.

“I think the university will have to [step] in,” Rafique said, “but unfortunately, they’re not there yet.” 

Godin has finally found a potential flat to stay in for the rest of the year through a friend of a friend. If that falls through, she said, she will cut her losses and return to Canada. 

The University of Glasgow and and the University of Manchester did not respond to requests for comment.

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