THE BLOG

Housing Is the Path to Renewed Students' Union Relevance

25/02/2014 11:36 GMT | Updated 26/04/2014 10:59 BST

Up and down the country, Students' Unions are playing into the hands of those who accuse them of being 'career accelerators' for those elected to them. Each year ambitious manifesto promises are proposed and not delivered and each year students deserve better than what they get.

Student housing unlocks a world of independence and responsibility for those coming out of first year and are about to embark on their degree for real. It's often the first taste of a house being 'yours' and it is a first taste of the real housing market for students.

It's just tragic that the standard of some of these houses is sometimes truly shocking.

But perhaps the real tragedy is that Students' Unions have the power to do something about it, but consistently choose not to; allowing greedy private landlords and letting agencies to operate. There is a real sense that once SU officers get elected, they then have that on their CV and only have to do enough get their paycheque at the end of the month.

There are, however, some success stories of where Students' Unions have managed to regulate the student housing market. The first model is student letting agencies. Cardiff University and Queen's University, Belfast are two magnificent examples of how these work.

The Students' Union has direct contact to every student at the university and can therefore direct them to where to look for houses. If it is the SU who is advertising the houses for let, this makes it much easier for the SU to drive up the standards of housing. The SU then dictates to landlords what the standard of housing is that meets the criteria for SU advertising. If it does not meet that standard, the SU does not advertise it - therefore it's harder to find and, in theory, the price should drop.

If however, the property does meet the standards, the SU advertise and market the house, it is easy to find and should be snapped up pretty quickly. So it is in the landlords own interest to make sure his or her house does meet the SU regulations. As the SU letting agencies only need to cover the cost of employing a few staff members, it does not charge students any admin fees and also has the possibility of charging landlords less in admin fees in case they need luring into the SU.

It's a very basic system, and with a grant from a supportive SU or university it would not be difficult to implement. There is even a more conservative model of this system that could be implemented in the short term. Get rid of the letting agency side of it and only have the advertising side. Let letting agencies know that the SU will be directing all students to their website to look for houses, but only houses which meet certain regulations will be advertised.

Letting agencies owned and run by Students' Unions are a great way to make Unions relevant again. Seeing as we don't even get cheap pints anymore, maybe Students' Unions who haven't already will work up the courage to really make a difference to student life. Letting agencies are also becoming a bit of a trend in student towns and cities. Hopefully, the more unions that adopt their own agency, the more unions will be brave enough set one up themselves. I'm convinced that one day, long after I graduate, we will start seeing student leader elections won on ambitious projects, and not which candidate can get as many friends to turn up to Rock City in their campaign t-shirts on a Wednesday night as they can.

Perhaps the reason why Students' Unions, such as mine in Nottingham, are reluctant to do anything is because of the yearly cycle of SU positions. It is very unlikely that any officer will run again for the same position, so they probably feel they don't have time to set up an ambitious project such as a letting agency.

Students' Unions need to devise long term plans, which elected individuals can champion, but are essentially run and managed by the longer term 'backroom machine' of the SU. Only then will we start seeing real, organised change in Students' Unions.