When 18-year-old Jessie Smith netted the top grades she needed last month to study at Manchester University she was delighted. She didn’t know then that all the university’s student halls would be full, and she would be forced to accept accommodation in Liverpool.
Sarah Smith, Jessie’s mother, who works as a PA in Sheffield, said she feels “frightened and disgusted” about her daughter living so far from the university. Manchester has offered £100 a week to cover commuting costs, but she feels this “misses the point”. She doesn’t want her daughter to be a 40-minute train ride away from the city she signed up for.
“There are all these fantastic activities in freshers’ week. I don’t want her worrying about how to get home afterwards,” she said. “University is about getting to know people and how can she do that if she’s not even in Manchester?”
Smith is not alone. A week ago, Manchester confirmed it still had more than 350 freshers waiting for a place in halls in the city. Last week, after offering £2,500 to anyone within commuting distance who would switch to living at home, a spokesperson for the university said there were now 75 freshers still waiting for somewhere to live.
He added that they were “prioritising working on more support” for students such as Jessie living in Liverpool, and would be linking them with a hall in Manchester. The university is rushing to finish refurbishing alternative accommodation, and says it is “very likely” that students will be able to move into the city in a few months.
Down the road, Manchester Metropolitan University, whose halls are also oversubscribed, has offered £100 a week to first years willing to accept accommodation in Liverpool or Huddersfield.
But popular though the city is among students, Manchester University is quick to point out that this isn’t just a local issue. The university told students and parents that there has been “unprecedented demand for university accommodation across the UK this year”.
Universities have long been expecting the demographic surge in the number of 18-year-olds that is now under way, but Manchester points out that they weren’t prepared for the pandemic and three years in which far more students achieved the high A-level marks they ask for. Pressure from record results last year meant many students deferred their places to this year.
New students in cities including Bristol, Glasgow and Edinburgh are reporting similar anxious struggles to find somewhere to live.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, said students who find last-minute places through clearing often miss the boat on university-owned accommodation – but now the problem is extending to those who accept places months before. “When I speak to sixth-formers I always say think as much about your accommodation as your course, as that’s where you meet people and make friends,” he said.
He pointed out that commuter students “have a worse experience”, according to research, and are more likely to drop out. “You have to be a pretty resilient student with a strong social network to cope with being housed in a different city,” he said.
Dr Helen Spencer, an expert in archeological glass from East Lothian, resorted to an appeal on Twitter for a spare room for her 17-year-old daughter Jess, who starts at Strathclyde University in Glasgow next week, after being told that she was “near the bottom of a 200-plus waiting list” for halls.
“It has been a hard few weeks, with lots of tears,” she said. “After a stressful three years where she worked so hard to get the grades she needed, and looking forward to a new start, she is devastated.”
Spencer tried to help her daughter find a private student houseshare or flat, but with huge competition for a declining number of rentals in the city they have had no luck. Strathclyde freshers’ week has already started and this weekend Jess will be moving into a spare room offered for a few weeks by a “friend of a friend”. She doesn’t know where she will live after that.
“She is worried about moving into someone else’s house and not having other students around her, not being able to have the first-year halls experience of meeting new friends,” Spencer added.
A spokesperson for Strathclyde confirmed that all university rooms were now full and students should look at private options.
She said: “We appreciate the frustration that is being created due to the exceptional demand for housing this year and the lack of university and private sector accommodation available across the UK, combined with high demand in the private rental sector in Glasgow.”
Glasgow University told new students in August that they would not be guaranteed accommodation this year and those living within commuting distance were automatically denied accommodation. The university said this was due to a rise in demand for places coupled with a “significant contraction” in Glasgow’s private rental market.
Eamon Mcguill, a father from Oldham, said his daughter and two friends have been left with nowhere to live for her first year studying philosophy at Glasgow after the private flat they thought they had secured fell through. The three freshers are now planning to sleep on a family member’s floor in Edinburgh for a few weeks and commute into the university while they keep searching. “Of course it’s all worse for her, but as a parent you really worry,” he said. “I’ve got no reassurance that she is safe, that she has her own space to go to.”
The annual scrum to secure student rentals is not new, but campaigners and universities say it is getting worse as landlords pull out of the student market and switch to running more lucrative Airbnbs and holiday lets.
When Hannah McGill, a sociology student, secured her first privately rented student flat in Edinburgh in 2019, it was as a result of winning a race. “There was so much competition – people used to have friends waiting outside the office so they could text them from inside the viewing and beat everyone else,” she said.
She and her friends intended to stay on for their master’s degrees in the forthcoming term. But earlier this year, their landlord suddenly raised the rent by more than £100 each, forcing them to give up their lease.
Walking past the building a few months later, McGill noticed a key box next to what had once been her front door. Their student home was now an Airbnb holiday let.
They had become the victims of what campaigners call a “silent eviction”, in which landlords force tenants out with untenable rent increases so that they can convert their properties to holiday lets.
Last month, St Andrews University blamed a rental shortage on an increase in Airbnbs and advised prospective students to commute from Dundee, about an hour away. Elle Glenny, a spokesperson for Scotland’s tenants’ union Living Rent, said the shortage was “the result of a housing market that prioritises the profit of landlords over tenants’ need for a home”.
“Landlords are hiking up rents far beyond affordable levels, forcing tenants out of their homes and communities, only to convert the would-be homes into more profitable holiday lets,” Glenny added.
At the University of the West of England in Bristol, more than 500 first-year students have been on a waiting list for university rooms after a “high volume of applications”. Students have been offered rooms in Newport, across the border in Wales, with travel costs included.
Bristol is another prime site for Airbnbs, with hundreds across the city. Prof Steve West, UWE’s vice chancellor and president of Universities UK, said Bristol is a “popular and vibrant city” with a serious shortage of rented accommodation. He explained that students are suffering from rising rental prices and the “sharp practice of landlords demanding half or a full year’s rent up front”.
The university is building 900 new flats ready for next year, with more to follow. But West said: “Bristol city council have limited where planning permissions would be granted for student accommodation which puts pressure on new-build developments.”
Ben Giles, managing director of Balloon Letting Company in Bristol, said they have been getting hundreds of calls every week from “desperate” students since the start of August.
“When we put up a student property now the phone rings straight away and doesn’t stop for about six hours,” he said. “We are even putting students in properties in Bath.”
Typically the student rental market goes quiet at the end of September, with everyone focusing on starting university and settling in. But this year is different. Giles said: “I’m expecting students to still be looking for property in Bristol for the rest of the year.”