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Housing

‘I’m paying £9k a year to sofa surf’ The university students facing homelessness

University students across the UK have been queuing through the night outside letting agents to secure flats and sofa surfing during their studies. We spoke to some of those hit by the student housing crisis.

University is all about new experiences – but for some students higher education is becoming an introduction to homelessness.

Swelling student numbers, a lack of accommodation and rising rents have seen students across the UK struggle to find a place to live. For some, that has meant spells without anywhere to call home.

Recent research has found that homelessness is more prevalent in university towns and cities. From Durham to Glasgow and further afield, students are finding themselves squeezed out of the housing market with nowhere else to go. In some cases universities encouraged students not to return after the summer holidays because there was nowhere for them to live.

University of Glasgow student Krishen Chadwick Patel has spent most of the autumn term staying in a hotel or relying on friends to offer a sofa or floor to sleep after he was left with no accommodation.

The 19-year-old – in the second year of his studies in business management with politics – told The Big Issue he has joined forces with others to create the Unhoused Students group to force the university to take action to help him find a stable home.

The group had heard from 25 University of Glasgow students who are also sofa-surfing, Patel said.

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“It’s just so weird not having a home in terms of having a place to go back to,” said Patel, originally from Warrington, Cheshire.

“For the first three weeks I was just kind of stuck living in limbo. One of my flatmates had not moved into his flat yet so I had his room for a week. After that I’ve just been sofa-surfing.

university students homeless
Krishen Chadwick Patel has spent most of his second year at university either in a hotel or sleeping on his friend’s floors and sofas. Image: Krishen Chadwick Patel

“I thought I’d be doing that for two weeks or whatever so I’d take a few t-shirts, a few pants and a few socks. But it’s just so horrible walking around moving from place to place and living out of a bag.

“I know there are people in a lot worse situations – I’m so aware of that – but I paid £9,000 a year to do this.”

A spokesperson for the University of Glasgow told The Big Issue it had increased the number of rooms managed by the university, focusing on first year students, but “contraction in the private rental market” meant it could not guarantee accommodation for returning students.

Patel had previously started looking for a flat in April along with four friends but was forced to change plans in the summer when two pulled out.

He sent a formal complaint to the university after finding himself homeless when he returned to university in September.

In an email to students sent on September 9, seen by The Big Issue, students who had not yet secured accommodation in Glasgow were advised to “not travel to Glasgow” and to consider whether to “suspend or withdraw from studies”.

Patel, already one year into his course, ended up sofa-surfing after travelling to the city.

The university gave him a free room in a hotel throughout October as a temporary fix. That left him juggling his uni work while living in a place without facilities to cook or wash his clothes.

At the start of November he moved out of the hotel insisting the university asked him to pay £640 a month to continue his stay. A university spokesperson confirmed students were asked to pay £160 a week from November 1, replicating the average price charged to students in university residences.

Now Patel is back to sofa-surfing and his academic studies have taken a hit.

“I told my advisor of studies that realistically I’m not going to be doing much work. I’ve been so busy searching for a flat and campaigning so it has taken a lot of our time. For the money I’m paying I’m not getting any of my education,” said Patel.

“My parents are so worried. Every time they speak to me they’re just like: ‘Are you actually okay? We’re so worried about you.’

“It’s genuinely the worst thing that could have happened this year, especially when I got the email telling me to defer or drop out because it’s not like the problem’s going to get any better next year unless the university drastically recruits fewer students.

“Are we just going to defer until the housing crisis magically disappears? That’s not going to happen. University is slowly becoming not the best option at the minute.”

A University of Glasgow spokesperson told The Big Issue the university had increased the number of rooms under university management by a quarter this year.

“Regrettably, due to a significant contraction in the private rental market, demand for rooms continues to be substantially ahead of expectation in Glasgow and more broadly across Scotland and the UK. Like most urban universities, we cannot guarantee accommodation for returning students,” the spokesperson said.

“We have focused – as is our usual policy – on providing accommodation to first-year undergraduate students who live at a significant distance from our campus. There has been no significant increase in student numbers this year.”

The University of Glasgow announced plans to research homelessness among students in September.

That was following a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Centre for Homelessness Impact which found universities should do more to track and prevent homelessness among students.

Homelessness tends to be higher in university towns and cities, academics found.

There were 1,428 applications to local authorities for homelessness assistance from every 100,000 people living in university towns and cities in England compared with 1,007 in areas without a university.

The rates of households living in temporary accommodation are more than twice as high while the prevalence of rough sleeping is more than three times greater. Academics found similar patterns in Scotland and Wales.

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The most recent statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed there were more than 2.7 million students in higher education in 2020/21 – up 9 per cent on the previous year.

This was partly due to a change in A-level grade boundaries following the impact of the pandemic that led to a larger intake of students than usual.

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Increasing numbers of students have placed strain on urban centres already grappling with huge demand for rental properties.

In Durham, scores of students took to camping out to queue up outside letting agents in the city following the release of available properties for the next academic year last month.

Local MP Mary Foy said the scenes were “worryingly becoming normalised” in a letter to 12 of the city’s estate agents.

Students at Durham University held a protest last week against the housing crisis they are facing. 

Dan Lonsdale, a third-year sociology student, organised the demonstration calling for the university to consider whether they can house new students as well as increasing the amount of accommodation available to students after their first year.

The October 28 protest also called on the university to subsidise transport fees for students forced to live out of the city and to work with food banks and charities to support students affected by a lack of accommodation and rising rents.

University students homeless
Durham University students held a protest against the shortage of housing at the university on October 28. Image: Dan Lonsdale

Lonsdale, 20, said students felt the housing situation was the latest issue to hit them after the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. “If God has a set of guinea pigs, we are very much strong contenders to be that group,” he said.

“Anything that could have gone wrong for us or could have happened to us, I think has happened to us in any way. They’ve dealt with it, to be fair to them, but it’s an incredibly stressful experience.

“Contrary to all of us being woke snowflakes, I think it’s probably testament to how strong students are. They will be ready for the real world. I think we’ve had a long trial run to get ready for.”

A spokesperson for Durham University’s tenants union accused the university bosses of “complete mismanagement” of student numbers at a time when students are vulnerable to the “massive power imbalance” between tenants and landlords in the wider rental market. They also blamed the “continued marketisation of education”, arguing that universities are forced to “prioritise expansion and profitability”.

In response, a Durham University spokesperson said the university is in “regular dialogue” with student leaders.

University students homeless
Scores of students turned out to protest against the housing crisis but the university has criticised local estate agents over rising prices too. Image: Dan Lonsdale

“We have reassured all our students that we will support them in finding suitable accommodation either in college or elsewhere,” the spokesperson added.

“We cannot exert control over the private rental market. We have seen some deplorable behaviour by letting agents and landlords in Durham, putting up prices above inflation and releasing properties much earlier than usual.”

But students are already facing anxiety over securing a property for next year.

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university students homeless
Durham University student Liv Eren has struggled to find a property and worries how she will cover rents in the cost of living crisis without asking her single mum for help. Image: Liv Eren

Liv Eren, a 19-year-old student in her first year at Durham University, told The Big Issue she has been struggling to find somewhere in her price range and has widened her search to places like Newcastle, 20 miles away.

“I’m a student from a low-income background in which coming to Durham was a struggle in itself. My first month I’m having to fork for a £600 deposit when in reality moving to university is already incredibly expensive,” said Eren, from Halton, Cheshire.

“There was no warning of what the housing situation would be like. The university’s website said you can expect to pay £100-110 a week to rent outside college but when I got here it was more like £150. It’s just not feasible.

“My single parent mother is in absolutely no position to be giving me money. So how am I going to cope next year?”

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