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Inequality We need action on student rent, not vague comments from the Tories

After asking the Universities Minister about the possibility for student rent caps, BERNADETTE HORTON writes about the absurd cost of living

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FOR THOSE of us old enough to remember the classic TV shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — where the civil servants ruled on exactly what the ministers said, did, thought and wore in public — I can now add my own modern-day version which, in my opinion, would make an ideal political comedy.

I am set to go to university in September, aged 51. A lifetime of bringing up kids, caring and housework is now about to be set aside for a short while to concentrate on my writing.

Indeed this marvellous newspaper has given this female working-class aspiring writer a platform to get into university. So thank you to the Morning Star.  

As such with my new-found status of student to be, I enthusiastically put forward a question to Tory Universities Minister Sam Gyimah on The Student Room’s online forum.

I was delighted when my question was selected and waited eagerly for Gyimah’s answer. My question revolved around rents and low-income students.

I asked him: “Rents in halls of residences and private rents have soared and take up huge chunks of maintenance loans. For low-income students, hall rents can be higher than the entire maintenance loan for a year. Will you be looking at rent caps?”

Housing and rent costs are a massive burden for students with families on low incomes and in many cases, including my own, halls of residence costs were firmly looked at before a decision was made to even apply to a particular university.

In London, for example, halls or private accommodation can be as much as £13,000 a year, which is way above the maximum maintenance loan available.

Even working part-time does not leave much room for books, travel, food and clothing costs etc. Places like London, York and Edinburgh can be no-go universities for low-income students.

Since the Con-Dem coalition decided to increase tuition fees to £9,000 a year, certain universities in certain cities have priced out working-class students. This is blatant class discrimination.

Imagine my shock when I received the following reply from the Universities Minister — I would like to point out that Mr Gyimah could perhaps do with a few lessons in public speaking.

“Well it’s not for me to look at rent caps, where you know you’ve got private landlords etc. But I am alive to this. I’m very alive to the size of the rent v the maintenance loan.

“There are also some landlords in some parts of the country which demand the rent be paid upfront for the year, which causes huge stresses and problems for families often, but also within the halls of residence.

“The thing that is most likely to upset students is if there is a rent increase. I think this is a key part of the cost of living, and it’s something that, as a new minister in this area, I want to look at: the cost of living for students and what we can do about it.

“So, I wouldn’t say rent caps but I can say that the cost of living for students is something I want to take a serious, and look at to see what we can do to support and help.”

The minister can be “very alive” to whatever he wants, but students want firm action on lowering rents, not in a few years time but right now.

The student rent crisis mirrors the overall picture of the housing crisis in Britain. It is a potent reminder of what a stubborn “no build, no rent cap” Tory housing policy has done to damage the very social fabric of our country, where we have homeless people freezing to death on our streets. It’s utterly shameful.

Gyimah needs to understand that talking in vague terms about the cost of living means nothing to students struggling with accommodation costs.

I can tell you now, minister, the thing that students get upset about is constant inaction by your government. The only thing the Tories are doing is inflating tuition fees so they take a lifetime to pay off.  And the recent announcement of a year-long review into the very mess they have made and what they are now going to do about it is as comedic as it gets.

But these are real lives the Tories are playing with. Student numbers are declining, working-class students are being financially barred from certain universities and regions, buy-to-let landlords are on the make and take, massive amounts of new student flats are being built in inner cities, with concierge services and “glamping” pods for visitors for the use of wealthy overseas students. The whole concept of university education being reduced to a marketplace for capitalist forces only.

Each individual country in Britain has very different policies that also divide students from England, Scotland and Wales.

Scottish students have no tuition fees to worry about, Wales is switching from partially funding tuition fees to targeting maintenance grants to all students. 

English students, on the other hand, are left to suffer the whole tranche of tuition fees and maintenance loans. It’s a bit of a postcode apartheid and it needs to stop.

Labour is looking at imposing rent caps on private landlords. If they could incorporate this rent cap on university halls of residence too, this would be a vote-winning initiative for students.

Many students I have spoken to look at tuition fees as something they will pay off on the never-never. Everyday rent, maintenance and living costs concern them now while they are studying and, for this reason, I think the new 2018 Wales initiative on maintenance grants is the way to go.

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