When we set out to look into student rents in the capital, we knew London was bound to be the most expensive place to be a student in the UK. But precisely how expensive still came as a shock.
The priciest single room we found in official university accommodation was at the University of London halls in Gower Street, costing a staggering £437.50 a week. It doesn't even look that luxurious in the pictures: clearly they are expecting their wealthiest students to shell out for a Bloomsbury address.
That's an extreme example. But in 2015-16 the average weekly rent for students in university halls in London was £226, compared with £118 in the lowest cost region, Wales.
Meanwhile several London institutions provide no affiliate accommodation at all, leaving even first-years at the mercy of our overheated private rental sector. They mainly go to the big student room providers - private companies not connected to the universities themselves but whose rooms are aimed at students only. "Welcome to a new kind of student living experience," says the marketing blurb for one of them - and by some accounts, that seems to be putting it mildly.
I'm told that any room costing as little as £150 a week is usually too good to be true. There will be hidden catches - non-refundable deposits, extra months to pay for outside term-time - and horror stories abound. Rats, human waste in the showers, cleaners refusing to go near the place... No wonder the recent London student rent strikes, over poor value for exorbitant cost, have been making headlines round the world. After loans and fees, rents are the new way in which students are being impoverished and exploited in the 21st century.
Student Living Rent
But this week I'm announcing a plan to help them deal with it. To complement the idea of a London Renters Union I launched a few weeks ago, I'm promoting the concept of a Student Living Rent.
It's based on the principle of the Living Wage, where economists use an agreed formula to work out the annual cost of living in a given location. It's not binding but when my Green colleagues Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones successfully argued for its introduction to City Hall in 2004, they rightly predicted that the Greater London Authority could use its contract-awarding powers as an inducement for more employers to pay the Living Wage. More than 700 employers in London now pay it.
My new idea, devised with the help of London Young Greens, is to establish an official figure for a London Student Living Rent on an annual basis. It will be calculated using the latest cost-of-living data, and the maximum loan and maintenance support that a student with no other support from family or grants could afford to pay, while maintaining a suitable balance between paid employment and studies.
Again it won't be binding - but it will act as a moral benchmark, helping students tell their institutions what is affordable.
We've initially estimated this year's Student Living Rent at £110 a week in London. We put in Freedom of Information requests to determine how much university accommodation falls within that. Ideally we'd hope it would be about 50 percent. But I was shocked to find that several of the biggest or best-known names - including the University of Westminster, King's College, the University of East London and the Guildhall - provide no rooms at all below that figure. According to our provisional analysis, the proportion across London academic institutions is between three and four percent.
One obvious response to that is that we've set the figure too low. But that's not what the students I talk to say. They say the universities have hiked up their accommodation costs in line with London market rent rises even though they have no financial need to do so. That must indeed be true of halls that have been there for decades, where the institution itself already owns the bricks and mortar.
Ah, say the universities, but we need the money to invest in new accommodation. Pull the other one, say the students. If you were really investing it in our rooms, how come so many of them are fetid?
One student we spoke to said it never occurred to her to think about the cost of accommodation when she was choosing where to study. Who does think like that at the age of 16 or 17, when they've never had to stand on their own two feet financially? In any case, she says, she wanted to do a specialist degree which is why she ended up at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Are we really going to say that schools like SOAS should be off-limits to all but the wealthiest?
But that's the way it's going, students in London warn. They have nothing against foreign students, but they say the entire system seems to be geared around their rich classmates from abroad. Do we really want great institutions like the London School of Economics and Imperial College to be effectively closed to our own young people because they can't afford to live in London?
I hope the universities themselves will agree that would be a terrible prospect - which is why I hope in time they'll also come to value and respect the concept of the Student Living Rent.
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