In recent ‘cost of living’ discussions, a segment of society which barely attracts any sympathy is students. If you cast your mind back to the depths of COVID-19, students were very much the scapegoat for any anger of the virus spreading. From angry Facebook entries to news articles, all fingers were pointed at those at the university. The effects of a badly timed worldwide pandemic during your university years continued; with many students paying thousands of pounds to never catch sight of a lecture hall. Guarded to stay in their accommodation, often unable to get home; you wouldn’t think the luck for students could worsen. Until the student accommodation crisis slowly crept upon us. In December 2021 NUS Scotland reported that 12% of students had been homeless and numbers are only rising. For international students, 1 in every 5 has experienced homelessness while studying in Scotland.
Why is this crisis happening? The spike in student homelessness is due to several factors. Universities have been largely relying on private landlords and companies to provide accommodation as opposed to building their own- which is why for a few years before the pandemic, those colourful student-esque buildings began to emerge, with communities of students around them. Once the pandemic hit, many landlords decided it was best to sell or move along to renting to professionals as some students returned home. Many of the new private student accommodations also dried up and innovations halted. This combined with a general shortage of affordable housing has caused an extreme scarcity of housing available to students.
With universities such as the University of Glasgow telling students to drop out or defer if they do not have accommodation, those unable to pay sky-high prices have few options to secure a place to stay. Surely respectable institutions such as the University of Glasgow would provide more support to its very own students? NUS Scotland recorded that 42% of international students have gone without heating and 10% have used food banks. It is clear to make rent each month, young people across the country are short on essentials.
Scotland is supposed to be a country where through SAAS funding higher education is much more accessible to those from lower-income families. But it seems unless you live close to your university, or you happen to be one of the select few to secure affordable accommodation- you’re going to need money. This postcode lottery seems to backpedal the total success of the existing student funding system by building those barriers to education higher. Many international students travel a long way (and spend a lot of money) to live and study here; only to be met with homelessness and quite frankly a lack of support from university institutions and government. Does this reality match the nation which prides itself on our education system? It doesn’t seem likely.
There is a suffocating demand for affordable student and general housing across the country. Back in March, Humza Yusuf proposed 100,000 new affordable homes to be built across Scotland by 2032. This is a step in the right direction in terms of housing policy, but it doesn’t seem to solve the pressing housing issue as it is right now. Shelter Scotland has criticised the pledge and called for the government to focus on building new housing within the next five years to meet demands. Shelter also further proposed a target of 37,100 social homes by 2025 to the government to meet the demands of those currently in temporary accommodation in need of a permanent home. Scottish Labour also has asked the government to co-operate with an interim tar rather than over the next decade.
Another key policy change which many are calling for to improve the lives of students is a reversal of the 2017 end to fixed-term tenancies. This type of tenancy is ideal for students, allowing them to move back home for the summer without being tied down to a lease and save some money while staying at home. The absence of fixed term let’s puts students in a difficult position and often drives away landlords from student markets as they have no guarantee of when students will leave the property. We need laws that make it easier for future generations, not trickier.
Many properties will simply display ‘NO STUDENTS’ totally disregarding that we aren’t all destructive party animals, right? If you are lucky to secure a property, there is no telling how your landlord may treat you. As a student myself, I can say from experience many of my classmates have walked into class unwell or with a cold, due to living in damp housing. When highlighting the poor treatment of students in the rental market and by landlords, Scottish Labour’s MSP for Lothian, Foysol Choudhury stated: “This problem was also made evident to me in a Student Housing Roundtable I hosted earlier this year, where I heard stories of racist landlords, sofa surfing and damp infested homes.” Shocking.
Students are the future of society. Many of the young people at the brunt of this crisis may one day be your doctor down to the next prime minister. If we are ever to see these roles become properly accessible to those from working-class backgrounds- there needs to be supportive policies in place to allow people to actually utilise such funded higher education without going homeless or sacrificing basic needs.