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Are hotels really a cheaper alternative to university halls?

The cost of student accommodation has risen by 60 per cent over the past decade, with many struggling to make ends meet. So what’s the alternative?

On Monday evenings during term time, 20-year-old Tigerlily Taylor checks into a Travelodge after finishing her day at the University of Northampton. Some days she’ll treat herself to a takeaway, then sink into a hot bath to unwind after hours of studying. The next day, she’ll wake up refreshed, pack her things, and head into uni for another day of lectures.

Though this may sound like an extravagant lifestyle choice, Taylor’s decision to stay in a Travelodge for one night a week is more economical than renting out student accommodation: speaking to Dazed, she recalls that ”a large ensuite room [in halls] is between £600 and £700 a month.” Staying in a Travelodge on Monday nights and commuting from home, however, costs her just £260 a month.

Taylor’s story – which went viral on TikTok – is microcosmic of the issue of rising student accommodation costs. It’s not only farcical that staying in a pristine hotel once a week is cheaper than renting out a dingy, mouldy room – it’s also straight-up appalling. “I definitely think student accommodation is overpriced,” Taylor tells Dazed. “Especially for young students who’ve just come straight from A-Levels. I know there are student loans to cover the cost of accommodation, but I know some people whose loans don’t even cover that.”

Taylor isn’t wrong. The Unipol and National Union of Students Accommodation Cost Survey 2021 found that rent for halls of residence has risen by 60 per cent over the past decade, reaching an average of £7,347. This figure surpasses the average maintenance loan, which is estimated to be around £5,640. Unsurprisingly, half of students admit to struggling to keeping up with rent costs.

18-year-old Sally from Swansea recently received an offer to study history at the University of Liverpool, but the cost of living in halls is making her apprehensive about going. “Accommodation is around £170 a week in halls, which is actually one of the cheaper options that they have,” she explains. Prices go up to over £220 a week, which Sally slams as “ridiculous.”

“This is obviously really concerning for someone like me, because I didn’t grow up with a lot of money in my household. I’ll actually be the first generation within my family to even attend university,” she tells Dazed. “A 42-week-contract at £170 a week is over £7,000, which is a huge portion of the £9,500 that I’m allowed to take out as a bursary. I’ll be left with £2,500 to pay for food, my phone, Netflix, and all the rest of it. There’s a good chance I won’t be able to go out at university because I won’t have any money.”

And while the Molly-Maes of the world might suggest that students simply hustle and girlboss until they’re able to afford their rent, the reality is (obviously) not that simple. “The students that I’ve spoken to are working at a job – or even multiple – just to afford rent, which obviously affects their uni work because they’re not able to study as much as they’re meant to,” Sally continues. “They’re constantly stressed about money and tired after working long shifts.”

Why have rent costs increased so much in recent years? A Unipol spokesperson explains that it’s largely down to the increasing number of students living in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA). “As student numbers have grown over the last 20 years, universities have increasingly relied on the private sector to house their students. Universities’ reliance on the private sector comes at a cost, manifest in the higher average rents associated with typically newer private rooms.”

But these sums aren’t always justified by halls’ flawless living conditions. “It’s very expensive for what you get: a small room [in a flat] that you’re sharing with 10 to 15 other people,” Sally says. The National Student Accommodation Survey 2021 also found that 32 per cent of students experienced a lack of water or heating, while 29 per cent reported damp in their accommodation.

It’s clear that students aren’t getting what they pay for – and landlords know it, too. As Leila Grossmark, a member of tenants’ union Acorn, tells Dazed: “There’s the presumption from landlords that students don't know their rights as renters, and will put up with higher rents, worse conditions and more precarious arrangements.”

While rent costs and living conditions won’t improve overnight, the good news is that students can access help in the meantime. Grossmark suggests getting in touch with a union like Acorn and using collective action to alleviate an individual's burden. “This could mean putting pressure on a landlord or letting agent to get a deposit returned, getting essential repairs carried out or a rent increase stopped. That is extremely powerful and makes you realise that you are not alone: other people are facing similar problems and you’ve got each other’s backs.”

But the onus isn’t just on students to act, as the Unipol spokesperson points out. “The Government urgently needs to re-evaluate how they calculate student financial support to account for the rising cost of living. Universities and accommodation providers also need to provide more affordable accommodation where they can, and increase bursaries in locations where this is not possible.”