When you think of St Andrews, what comes to mind? Perhaps beautiful beaches, historic buildings or vast golf courses. An idyllic town loved by tourists and locals alike. However, for students at St Andrews University, the first thought to arise is “can I find a home this year?” For the first time in the university’s long history, students are becoming homeless.
How has this situation occurred? You would assume that the best university in Scotland could house their student body, but the university has become greedy. By accepting a greater cohort of students than can be accommodated, income from tuition fees has increased. The University of St Andrews has blamed Covid-19 for a greater number of A-level students achieving good grades. This created a larger student cohort, which is beyond the university’s control.
So, the university can’t be blamed? Wrong. Despite acknowledging an unsustainable intake of undergraduate students, the university admitted 20 times more postgraduate students in 2020 than in 2019. Postgraduate intake is not impacted by A-levels. This illustrates the university’s greed and mismanagement, prioritising revenues over student welfare. In 2020, the student body reached 10,000, a level not planned for in the university’s strategy until 2024. The exponential increase in student numbers has created a housing crisis with a higher demand on private lets and university halls.
A high price to pay for education
Now, let’s shift our focus to the cost of accommodation in St Andrews. How much would you be prepared to pay for a room in student halls? This year, 2022-23, students in university accommodation will be paying £847 per month to stay in a catered hall with shared bathrooms – £7,623 for a nine month contract. The cheapest hall, Gannochy House, provides self-catered rooms with shared bathrooms for £550 per month. However, this is the smallest hall and can only house 167 students.
The University often boasts of its social exclusivity, encouraging applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. At St Andrews, over 50% of Scottish students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, about 1,500 in total. If the university acknowledges that these students are from low-income backgrounds, how can a lack of affordable accommodation be justified? 167 affordable rooms is insufficient to accommodate 1,500 students who require low-cost housing.
Furthermore, in 2019, the university demolished the most affordable hall – Albany Park – where rent previously cost £3,500 a year. The University of St Andrews plans to replace Albany Park with a new luxury development, taking advantage of seafront views for summer tourism lets.
Is private renting a viable alternative?
So, what about private lets? Well, demand outstrips supply, leading to students paying upwards of £900 per month for a room in a flat share. £600 is now considered a cheap price for a room in the private market. The HMO (house of multiple occupancy) ban introduced by Fife Council is partly to blame. Students do not pay council tax; it appears that Fife Council is boosting its council tax income by discouraging landlords from renting to students. Banning HMO licences means that landlords with 3+ bedroom properties cannot legally rent to more than 2 students. This has resulted in some students paying exorbitant rents to live in a home with empty bedrooms.
The Open golf tournament this summer also impacted affordable housing. Many landlords converted their properties into short term lets for golfers during the July tournament. Holiday lets are extremely profitable, offering greater revenue compared to student rentals. This has reduced the housing stock for student rentals by removing more supply from the market.
As a result of the current housing crisis, 390 students are without a home for September. At the time of writing, this leaves two weeks before teaching commences. The university was warned by the St Andrews Campaign for Affordable Student Housing (CASH) about the possibility of a homelessness crisis in January. Only now, two weeks before disaster, has the university taken the housing shortage seriously.
Shifting the problem
The response has been disappointing, because the university is encouraging students to look outside of St Andrews to find accommodation. Dundee is highlighted as a solution, as the university has obtained spaces in Dundee Halls for St Andrews students. However, Dundee has experienced the greatest increase in rental demand in Scotland. During a Living Rent meeting in Dundee, local people were complaining of waiting up to six months to find available lets. Encouraging students to live in Dundee is not a solution; it is simply shifting the housing crisis away from St Andrews.
Furthermore, CASH ran a survey to monitor the satisfaction of St Andrews students living in Dundee. Almost 70% of respondents moved to Dundee as they had no other choice, with 86% stating that their mental health had been negatively impacted.
The real impact
Ben, 19, is one of the 390 homeless students. He is entering his 2nd year of study and is considering living in the Dundee halls, acquired by St Andrews as a last resort. His experience of house hunting in the St Andrews private market was disappointing:
“I made an enquiry into a 2 bedroom flat without a living room that was over £2,000 a month to be told that too many enquiries had already been made for the property. The fact that this complete and utter rip off was able to receive so much attention can only show the dire situation that the town faces.”
Ben is worried about living in Dundee, which would be an hour’s commute into St Andrews. Commuting students face estrangement from friends and academic support. On the subject, Ben said:
“The point is this: had I wanted to live in Dundee, I would’ve applied to Dundee University. I chose St Andrews because I fell in love with the town and it is grossly unfair that I am being stripped of the opportunity to be a part of it.”
The most worrying impact of the housing crisis is the toll on mental health.
Rob, 21, is a homeless student about to enter his final year. His experience highlights the emotional distress caused by the housing crisis:
“This experience was the number one thing that caused me stress this summer. There was a prolonged period in which I felt distressed and even considered taking a year away from St Andrews.”
Something must change
What is the future of student housing in St Andrews? If the university continues to ignore the housing crisis, low-income students will be excluded from higher education. The university must create a strategy to provide more students with beds at an affordable price. The overall size of the student population must be managed to avoid adverse pressure on the housing stock.
Fife Council and the Scottish Government also have a responsibility towards homeless students. CASH has demanded that Fife Council lift HMO licence bans for the coming academic year to ensure the use of all bedrooms in student houses. The Scottish Government has been implored to impose a rent cap in St Andrews to end extortionate rent increases. However, the cost of living is still a concern for many students, especially with rising utility bills and food prices. With the cost-of-living crisis adding strain to student budgets, the final months of 2022 look difficult for St Andrews.