by Robyn Banks
Last week, NUS released the 2018 edition of their ‘Homes Fit For Study’ report on the state of student housing in the UK. Whilst the findings aren’t overly surprisingly, they still present the stark realities of the standard of housing that students have to face. The report demonstrates the effect that poor housing can have on mental health and wellbeing – one student reported that “Sometimes in bed when it’s bitterly cold we all feel like crying…” and another even said that her housing was so cold she caught pneumonia. In a society where the focus is on growing private capital, the health of tenants often comes second.
49% of respondents to the survey said they felt their home was uncomfortably cold. Compared to the national average of 8 hours a day, the average student only puts the heating on for about 4 during the winter. This results in 68% of students needing to use hot water bottles or blankets to keep warm, with 50% also saying they put on extra layers of clothing to combat the cold. As one student put it, “it’s warmer to go outside for a run sometimes to heat up”. It has become the expected norm for students to be unhealthily cold in their homes, and to just suck it up.
Students who suffer from cold houses also often struggle to pay their bills. 42% of students saying they have at one point or another struggled to pay the bills for their energy usage. No-one should ever have to face the choice between doing a food shop and being able to have the heating on, but this report reveals that many students are being pushed towards that crossroads. This can lead to an increase in tensions in the household. Arguments break out about the lack of heating or the amount that people have to pay for the bills; as one student surveyed described, “We have quite a lot of arguments in the house about energy usage […] Our relationship is pretty bad now.”
going home felt more like a form of torture than something I would be excited to do at the end if the day
In some student houses, these problems are intensified further by the antiquated technology of prepaid meters. I have personally had to experience the discriminatory effects of these devices, both when I was growing up and in my first student home. They represent a supposedly bygone era where those who were deemed likely to default on payments would often be put on a top up system to reduce ‘risk’ to suppliers. Like many working class people, I often witnessed situations where the electricity would go out in the middle of the night and you’d have to rush to the cornershop to avoid the food defrosting, or you’d come home from work or school to find the electricity off, or that the gas had run out so the heating had been off all day. These aren’t issues faced by a majority of students or working people – but they shouldn’t be faced by anyone at all.
These are all things I experienced this during my second year of university. I was often having to balance having food in the fridge and contributing to the energy bills on the prepaid meter. The effect it had on my mental health was massive, as I was often embarrassed by my inability to buy enough food to have a decent meal everyday while paying for my share of energy. This resulted in a huge level of resentment in the household and, at the end of it, led to a situation where going home felt more like a form of torture than something I would be excited to do at the end if the day. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody and find it shameful that we live in a society where students are forced into these situations where food, energy consumption and friendships are all being traded off against each other because of the poor state of student housing.
There are many more stories to be found in the data, all of which demonstrate the problems with standard of living that exist for students. But it doesn’t need to stay this way. Up and down the country there are organisations which are fighting to change the shape of student accommodation. In Brighton, ACORN renters union won significant compensation for student tenants by holding a rent strike, showing that direct action which hits the landlord (in this case their university itself) directly in the pocket can force rapid change. In Birmingham, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Norwich, as well as elsewhere around the UK, Student Housing Co-ops are changing the way that students can live by allowing them to own the property they live in. Instead of giving it to a greedy landlord who cares about themselves and the lining of their pockets, they raise money to shape their house as they want and increase the common ownership of property within a much exploited community.
More than ever, students are becoming aware of the costs of university, both the explicit costs of tuition and the unspoken costs such as the health impacts of substandard housing. The NUS stats don’t paint a pretty picture, but we can fight for the change that’s needed. We have more power than our landlords want us to believe. We can’t just live in devices designed to line the pockets of fat cats. We need housing that actually meets liveable standards. And as ACORN, the student housing co-ops and many other angry students are showing us, by hook or by crook we’re gonna get it.
Featured image CC0 via MaxPixel
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