Unhappy and unhoused: the story of an undergrad
The beginning of this academic year was heralded by the notorious ‘Housing Crisis’, which left hundreds of first-year Sussex students without on-campus accommodation.
While some opted to group together to find houses off-campus rather than await vague possibilities of being offered a place in halls of residence at some point, many were forced to board with host families in Brighton and the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, others have been staying in hotels and B&Bs. All are desperate to be allocated housing on campus; all are faced with an unknown, daunting stint on the housing waiting list.
I was one of the students left homeless by the university. As such, I know that these problems can only occur when universities enrol more students than they can house.
This has been the case at Sussex this year, with an undergraduate intake of 3,050 in comparison to roughly 2,900 in 2009, meaning that approximately 200 additional students have been enrolled without the university possessing the means to provide them with accommodation.
After a spell on the waiting list as I boarded with a host family, I have now been placed in campus accommodation. However, many students who are still in this position (and as it appears, will be for the foreseeable future), experience added and unnecessary strains in terms of both finance and practicality in their first year of university life.
Financially, the cost of staying with a host family (one that rents a room to a student on a temporary basis while they await alternative accommodation) is either £90 per week for self- catering or £110 per week for half-board; roughly the same cost as university-managed accommodation.
However, to the student, the situation is far from preferential because they are segregated from most other freshers that are fully experiencing campus life.
Accordingly, some perceive this pricing to be unfair, feeling that the inconvenience of living with a host family ought to be reflected in the rent.
To students in this situation, the cost of travel to and from Falmer represents an additional burden.
However, it is an issue seemingly not taken into account; students’ allowance being just two ‘taxi vouchers’ issued by the Housing Office, which, to many students’ dismay, completely fails to offer a reimbursement for money needlessly spent travelling to and from campus.
The practicality of travel to some students whose host families live a distance from the university presents difficulties, with some based as far away as Saltdean or Hove; both of which are over 6 miles away from campus.
This means in some cases, students need to travel for more than an hour to reach their classes. To them, this must feel like an immense injustice: their living arrangements to begin with being far from ideal without having to contend with campus-based course mates who have the luxury of being able to roll out of bed minutes before a lecture is due to commence.
Another problem reported by homeless students is their dissatisfaction with the service offered by the Housing Office. I personally experienced a lack of empathy and sense of urgency from them and this, twinned with a lack of accommodation, forced some of my friends to defer until next year.
Roma Tournier-Blake is one of these unlucky students. At the bottom of the waiting list and facing a lengthy wait to gain a room on campus, she decided to defer until next year when she might have a better chance of securing on-campus accommodation.
However, thanks to her bad experiences, she is considering withdrawing from the university altogether.
“I felt disheartened when I found out I was not offered a room on campus; I thought everyone in halls would form friendships and I’d be left out of the freshers’ experience,” she says. “I was originally living with a host family who lived quite far away from the university so I decided to stay in a hotel instead. This of course was expensive and I didn’t feel like I was getting much of an experience of student life.
“However, when I went to the Housing Office with my concerns, they weren’t very helpful at all. I visited regularly to see where I was on the waiting list but they’d never seem interested or eager to house me or anybody else.
“This meant that I didn’t really get the impression I would get a room in the near future which led to my decision to defer in the hope that I gain a room on campus next year.”
Roma also feels that that international students, to a certain extent, receive preferential treatment from the university in terms of housing arrangements.
“I believe that if you are here for the whole three years you should be given priority over those who only stay for a term or just one year.
“Moreover, tuition fees for international students originating from outside the EU is £10,475 per year, compared to £3,290 for UK students; this clearly highlights the benefits of enrolling and housing international students over UK students.
“The University of Sussex gains far more financially from the high tuition fees and accommodation costs if they not only accept international students, but house them on campus to ensure that they are more inclined to pursue the offer of a place here and less likely to withdraw once they arrive and find themselves immersed in the centre of campus life with plenty of support networks.”
Jo Goodman, the Students’ Union Welfare Officer, says: “We feel very strongly that this kind of situation should not be allowed to happen again and although next year should be different with the opening of the new Northfields accommodation on campus, we have stressed to the university that it is important that lessons are learnt and the situation this year is taken into account in any future plans for university accommodation such as the proposed demolition of East Slope.”
The issue of East Slope’s future has been shrouded in controversy for several years.
While the residence is often regarded uninhabitable, it is the cheapest campus has to offer and there are concerns that if it is demolished and not replaced with alternative, affordable accommodation, living on campus will become an option available only to the rich and affluent, who have the means to afford it.
The less well-off would thus be forced to seek accommodation elsewhere in Brighton; this would have the effect of decentralising campus life and scattering the student body, potentially impairing life at Sussex for every student throughout their studies.
In the event of East Slope’s demolition, the construction of the Northfields halls would do nothing to alleviate any of these concerns; while it will add more rooms, they will all be en-suite. Such rooms are notoriously expensive; for example, Swanborough (currently the newest and most expensive residences, providing fully en-suite accommodation) costs each student a staggering £120.50 per week. This contrasts to East Slope’s more affordable £77. With it being anticipated that Northfields will be at least as expensive as Swanborough, there are growing concerns that students on a budget will seek accommodation in the wider Brighton area, where the average weekly rent for student accommodation is roughly £80-85.
However, the university has maintained that they are working hard to ensure that new students find university-managed accommodation accessible: “We have already added 750 spaces to our campus accommodation over recent years and new residences, providing a further 777 extra bedrooms, will be ready next July.”
The assurance that the housing problem will be solved by the time the next academic year comes around is, of course, of little comfort to the unlucky freshers of 2010 who will simply need to remain on the waiting list until further notice, and of even less comfort to those whose housing situation has forced them to withdraw from the university altogether.
Nonetheless, the university maintains that: “No university can guarantee to house all students who want to take up university accommodation. Around 80 percent of new students currently seek university-managed accommodation, and our housing team works very hard to accommodate all comers.”
But the argument as to whether the university should continue enrolling an ever-growing number of students each year without adequate housing still remains.
Having personally spent some time on the waiting list, I feel that the university could have dealt with the situation more fairly; firstly by reimbursing students and secondly by the having a greater sense of empathy and urgency when communicating with the students awaiting university-managed accommodation.
Although the situation caused by the housing crisis is seemingly temporary, it is nonetheless very unfortunate for the students it has affected.
This issue could have been avoided if the university admitted only the amount of students that it was actually able to provide accommodation for; this of course is not in the management’s interests – fewer students, after all, means less money.
As such, a growing concern amongst the student body is that the university is allowing its admission standards to wane in its bid to enlarge the student body – and in turn, university managers’ bank balances. This is clearly a massive threat to the integrity of everyone’s degree.
With the cost of on-campus accommodation increasing exponentially, a measure that would be particularly hard-hitting is the proposals to demolish East Slope.
Many students hold the opinion that the university is simply not fulfilling its most basic of responsibilities to new students: to facilitate the provision of affordable and accessible university-managed accommodation.