As you can probably imagine, as part of our role in representing students’ interests we discuss the cost of rent on campus every year. Because UEA sells itself on the “campus experience”, it’s no surprise that so many students view living here in their first year as a default. So the meetings are important to us at uea(su), both because the level of rent affects the pound in your pocket as a first year, but also because research suggests that the price of private accommodation in a University town or City takes it cue from the price set by the Uni for campus housing.
Some student accommodation at Universities runs as a loss maker; but here at UEA some years ago discussion between uea(su) and UEA revealed that the Uni was looking to cover the cost of long term maintenance by making a small surplus. The Students' Union back then didn’t object too much because rent was still comparatively cheap in Norwich and the state of some halls was pretty shoddy.
Fast forward to now and things have certainly changed. Last year the Uni made a surplus of £5.8 million from campus accommodation, which goes into the University’s central coffers. That’s effectively a University Fees Top Up Fee of £1200 per student. That’s a lot of money- and given it’s students’ money, it matters. So how did we get here?
When the University started raising accommodation fees and making their surplus, they saw that it made them a decent profit and craved more – focussing on what students would pay rather than what they should be paying. This slowly spiralled into a system where the University pushes up rents each year in order to get an extra hit of money, simply because they can.
Each year campus accommodation has increased in price and has done better than UEA predicted. But when it’s done well, instead of putting a brake on the price increases, the University has been banking on the good performance and carries on putting the price up by more than inflation- every year, for the past eleven years.
And what’s gone from a mild surplus is now a massive figure- a figure so large that it is now central to the University’s overall budget. Over the past ten years, by stealth - with no-one ever stopping to think about the consequences- we’ve ended up in a situation where the student funding package barely covers accommodation, but a surplus from it is bankrolling the Uni’s budget.
And the effects are corrosive. It means that poorer students are having to choose between books and rent. It means students missing lectures to hold down part time work to make ends meet. And it means that right across Norwich, in a market already tight because of Uni expansion, rents are soaring- which is bad news for students and young locals too.
The Uni isn’t lying when it says that the money funds the student experience. But there has to be a balance when taking that money from students simultaneously harms their student experience. And right now, the detailed analysis that’s done is on the Uni’s finances- not student finances. This has got to change.
That’s why we’re running our 'All I want for Christmas is Fair Rent' campaign and we need your support. Next week in the square, we'll have our Christmas Grotto, where you can come and contribute to a campaign that's asking the Vice Chancellor to show some Christmas spirit and freeze rents.
First, we’re calling for 18/19 rent to be frozen at 17/18 levels instead of the proposed 3% increase- (which will still deliver £6 million in surplus) but will be a first step in breaking the cycle of constant rent rises. Second, we’re calling for the Uni to do proper research into the costs that students face at Uni so that when it makes decisions about the price of breakfast, or SAM, or rent, it knows how harmful that might be. Third, we’re demanding that it has a proper strategy on student costs- getting prices down so that we can all afford to participate and succeed at University.