Student housing is reaching a “crisis point” not seen since the 1970s, when students slept in sports halls and their cars, and is set to worsen in the new year, a charity has warned.
Since the start of the academic year, students at universities across the UK have complained of fierce competition for rooms in flatshares for the 2022 and 2023 academic years.
Experts say there are growing numbers of students experiencing periods of hidden homelessness or accepting unsuitable housing out of desperation. Students say they have been forced to couch-surf with friends, live with parents some distance away or accept unsuitable rooms such as those without windows.
“You’re beginning to see student housing moving into shortage across the majority of universities – not just the ones you read about,” said Martin Blakey, the chief executive of the student housing charity Unipol.
“The reason is that purpose-built student accommodation has stopped expanding to the extent it was, and we don’t think that’s going to change. At the same time we think there’s a significant decrease in shared houses – [landlords] are moving back to renting to professionals or leaving the market.”
This had been compounded by universities running less of their own accommodation in favour of partnerships with private providers, which were hamstrung by the wider investment freeze and hostile planning regimes in some cities, he said.
Planning regulations had made it more difficult for private houses to be subdivided, and Scotland now required landlords to apply for house in multiple occupation (HMO) licences, he added.
Data compiled by the StuRents accommodation portal, which says it represents 70% of student beds in the UK, suggests there is a shortfall of 207,000 student beds, and 19 towns and cities where there is more than a 10% undersupply of beds, ranging from 28% in Preston and 25% in Bristol to 10% in Birmingham and Swansea.
Blakey said the shortage was acute this year due to several factors, including growing demand for rentals in cities, rapidly expanding universities and international students returning amid the easing of the Covid pandemic. He predicted the situation would deteriorate in January when a new intake arrived, and again in September 2023, which is expected to be another record university recruitment round.
Chloe Field, the National Union of Students (NUS) vice-president for higher education, said the “unprecedented” housing shortage was “jeopardising students’ university experience and forcing them to make difficult decisions”. “Without urgent action to increase the amount of affordable housing, it is inevitable that both dropouts and student homelessness will increase,” she said.
In Glasgow, students have begged their university not to halt recruitment after those left unhoused were told not to register for their courses; students in Durham queued overnight to reserve housing for next year; students at Bristol were housed in Newport, Manchester students in Liverpool and York students in Hull; and students in Northern Ireland have set up their first housing cooperative.
Michael Rainsford, co-founder of StuRents, said while different cities would advertise student rooms for autumn 2023 at different times, “we’re seeing the earliest searches ever by students who are scrambling to secure somewhere to live”. In Durham nearly every property available for autumn 2023 was let by the end of October.
Rainsford said strong competition for homes had pushed up prices, averaging at about a 10% increase and as much as 20% in some towns, compared with last year. Students are also struggling with affordability – the NUS estimates that one-third of all accommodation costs more than the average maintenance loan.
Last year, a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute warned that student homelessness would increase due to the cost of living crisis, while a survey of 3,000 students by Student Beans in October suggested that one in 10 had faced moving back in with parents or examples of homelessness such as couch-surfing, or living in Airbnbs, hotels or in their cars.
Portsmouth and east London universities confirmed there had been higher numbers of homeless students this year.
Universities are being urged to collect and publish more data on where their students live and to provide better information to prospective students.
Blakey highlighted the example of Nottingham as a potential solution: the local authority has collaborated with the town’s two universities on a student living strategy to determine how much housing is required and available.
He added that universities could “put their hands in their pockets and develop some of their own housing again”, because “in a housing shortage the people who’re really badly affected are those who are last in the queue”.
A spokesperson for Universities UK said that “universities worked closely with students and the housing sector to ensure students find appropriate accommodation” this year but that it was aware of problems, for which it was exploring possible solutions.