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‘I felt like an outcast’: Inside the student accommodation crisis

Now that term has started, what is university life really like for students who are still without adequate accommodation?

When 19-year-old Dami Areola applied to university, she had her heart set on the University of Bristol. She found that she’d missed the entry requirements by just one grade on results day – but, undeterred, she picked up the phone and called the clearing hotline for the University of the West of England (UWE). She was offered her a place on their business management and economics course immediately.

The next step was finding accommodation. Dami didn’t want to live on campus – she wanted to experience Bristol properly. “I wanted the best of both worlds,” she tells Dazed. “I could easily get the bus to campus, but if I wanted to go out, I’d already be in the city.” She filled out all the necessary forms and sent them off – only to be met with radio silence.

Eventually, someone from UWE’s accommodation office replied to her, only to tell her that they’d run out of accommodation. “I was really overwhelmed and stressed,” she tells me. “I’ve never felt like that before in my life.”

Finding university accommodation is often a struggle, especially for those who go through clearing. But the situation this year is particularly hellish: a housing shortage plus record numbers of applicants plus an increase in accepted places due to grade inflation has meant that demand for student housing is far, far outstripping supply. Plus, the number of deferrals has risen since the pandemic, with universities still combatting a backlog – the University of Leeds went as far as offering last year’s applicants £10,000 cash and free accommodation to defer in a bid to combat oversubscription.

As a result, this year’s students are being left in the lurch. Last week, the University of Glasgow sent an email to all incoming students advising them against travelling to the city if they had not yet secured accommodation. At UWE, more than 500 first-year students have been on an accomodation waiting list. In Manchester, students are being paid to live in halls as far as Liverpool and Huddersfield. Last month, St Andrews University ascribed a shortage in housing to an increase in Airbnbs and advised prospective students to commute from Dundee – an hour away from Glasgow. Research has also found that the number of homeless students is on the rise.

It’s not unreasonable for students to expect accommodation in the same city as their campus – most applicants don’t choose their university solely for their course, after all. For many, university is not only a chance to learn, but a chance to live somewhere new and enjoy all that that place has to offer. As Dami says, “not to be dramatic, but if you haven’t got anywhere to live, you’re just like, ‘what was the point?’”

18-year-old Dominic Gregory also struggled to find accommodation after being offered a placed at Cardiff Metropolitan University. “I was excited to have a fresh start. New people, new location. I was really looking forward to that part of my life and taking the next big step,” he tells Dazed. “But, yeah, it just never seemed to work out properly.”

Dominic applied for accommodation before the deadline on the university website, which led him to believe he would get accommodation without much fuss. But September rolled round, and Dominic had still heard nothing. “Every other day for two weeks I called the accommodation admin team. They just told me that these were ‘unprecedented times’,” he says. Dami had a similarly unhelpful experience with UWE’s accommodation office. “One of the people at the accommodation office told me that if I didn’t find accommodation, I should think about deffering,” she recalls.

Eventually, Dami got the email she’d been waiting for – an accommodation offer from the university. It was a huge relief. But when Dami looked up the place she’d been offered – Newport Student Village – she realised it wasn’t in Bristol. It wasn’t even in the same country as Bristol – it was in Wales, nearly 30 miles away from the UWE campus. It wasn’t the big city university experience she had dreamed of – but the university reassured those who’d been offered accomodation in Newport that they would help them pay for their railcards and provide transport to the train station. Out of options and out of time, Dami decided to take the plunge.

When I speak to Dami, it’s the first Monday after Freshers’ Week, so I ask her how she found the past few days. She says it’s been “manageable”, and explains that she’s only been out clubbing once. Unsurprisingly so: going out is a logistical nightmare for UWE students in Newport. She tells me that she essentially felt trapped on her one night out – she wanted to go home early, but was unable to safely get back to her flat on her own. While most freshers would simply bundle themselves into a £3 Uber, students living in Dami’s accommodation can only get back from Bristol by taking the last Megabus to Newport at 2am.

“We’re all just cooped up in Wales,” she says. “It’s just a bit dead here. Newport’s not as amazing as Bristol. It’s not terrible, but I wouldn’t say it’s the same… I keep seeing stories on social media of people having the best time and getting FOMO.” It seems especially cruel to rob this year’s freshers of a week of Jägerbombs and zoo parties, given that young people have already lost out on so many fun and formative experiences due to the pandemic.

“Newport’s not [the same] as Bristol [...] I keep seeing stories on social media of people having the best time and getting FOMO” – Dami

Dominic, meanwhile, was never offered accommodation. The university suggested that as a ‘local’ student, he could commute from his home in Newport – which, door-to-door, takes him around one and a half hours on public transport. Excess costs and lengthy journeys aside, research from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has shown that commuter students are more likely to get worse degrees and drop out than their peers in halls.

Dominic decided to try commuting – but, perhaps expectedly, he struggled to make friends without living in halls. “It was hard to meet new people,” he recalls. “I would go into the canteen and get a lot of weird looks for sitting on my own. No one really seemed to want to talk to me. It made me feel like a complete outcast.”

It’s worth pointing out that universities have no control over external circumstances, such as  record numbers of applicants and landlords buying up properties to convert into Airbnbs. On the other hand, though, it doesn’t seem like they’re doing enough to support the young people in their care. Dami says that she’s not yet been reimbursed for her railcard despite the university saying that they would do so. The taxi between the accommodation and train station hasn’t materialised either. She adds that she knows several people who have now dropped out due to the stress of the situation. “I might consider it too – it’s all a lot,” she says.

The experience has also taken its toll on Dominic’s mental health. “I thought maybe it was because I was just very tired,” he says. But the feeling persisted, and after a long talk with his family, Dominic decided to drop out. He acknowledges that it’s hard to say whether he would have felt differently if had he been offered a room – he explains the idea of working full-time and earning his own money was also appealing – but stresses that it’s more likely he would have stayed if he had been given appropriate accommodation: “if I had made at least one friend, I think the chances of me staying there would have been a lot higher.”

The situation reflects the convergence of two mounting issues: the housing crisis and the commodification of education. Why did Cardiff Met encourage Dominic to commute, knowing that it would take three hours out of his day to get there and back? Why has UWE even offered accommodation in Newport to students? It’s blindingly obvious that these are recipes for disaster – so why are they even options in the first place? It would surely be kinder, in the long-term, to reject more applicants and tell them to apply elsewhere, before they turn up, struggle, and agonise over dropping out like Dominic had to.

The uncomfortable answer is that higher education is, increasingly, an industry driven by profit. Universities aren’t centres of learning anymore – they’re businesses, and students-paying customers. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that so many unis are more concerned with getting “bums on seats” than safeguarding student welfare – after all, a happy student in halls and an unhappy student commuting in both pay £9,250 in tuition fees.

Dominic is doing better now that he’s dropped out, and Dami says those in Newport are bonding over their shared experience and trying to make the most of their year in Wales. But their stories – and the stories of countless other first-year students in similar situations – should serve as a warning to universities. The issue of oversubscription urgently needs to be addressed – or else we’ll be in the same mess this time next year.

UWE said: Students living in accommodation in Newport will receive a full reimbursement for their railcard once they have supplied the university with their bank details, and proof of purchase. This has been clearly communicated to students, but if any students are having difficulties they are advised to contact our accommodation services team for guidance. Students have been asked to contact the designated taxi company the evening before their journey, and a taxi will be waiting from them in the morning. This applies to groups of students and individuals. These journeys will be free of charge for students, as the costs will be covered by the university. Students can use this service for journeys between the Newport accommodation and the railway station, from Monday to Friday. If any student living in accommodation in Newport has incurred a cost for a taxi to the railway station since the beginning of term, they can contact the university to receive a reimbursement.

Cardiff Met said: Cardiff Met allocates rooms in University accommodation based on the date and time that students make their application to stay in Halls, and a guarantee of accommodation is provided to all non-local students who apply for a course and make Cardiff Met their first choice before 31st May. Any student that applies for University accommodation and lives in Cardiff, Newport or the Vale of Glamorgan will be considered ‘local’. This is made clear within our halls application process, as students make their applications, and on the University websiteAll students are encouraged to seek help if they are struggling with any aspect of university life. Personal Tutors, as well as university support services, are always on hand with advice and support.