The cost of accommodation at the UK’s top universities has soared by as much as 77% over the past decade, HuffPost UK can reveal.
An investigation found that the cost of the cheapest halls at Russell Group universities jumped by an average of 41% between 2008 and 2018, despite maintenance loans rising by as little as 13%.
While students at Cardiff University could rent a room for £2,163 ten years ago, they must now fork out a minimum of £3,824 to live in halls, following a hike in housing costs of more than three-quarters, it emerged.
Those studying at the London School of Economics were also shown to be at the sharp end of a 73% price hike, with housing costs rising by almost £1,500 since 2008/09 - though rent now includes the cost of seven catered meals a week.
Meanwhile, the cost of the cheapest room at Queen Mary University of London jumped by more than half (55%) during the same period.
But rising accommodation costs do not tell the whole story. Freedom of Information requests - combined with information taken from online university accommodation guides - revealed that some of the UK’s brightest students are being priced out of university accommodation all together.
One in six of the country’s most prestigious institutions charged students more than the minimum maintenance loan for even the cheapest accommodation on offer this year, leaving many struggling to balance work and study or forced to turn to their parents for support.
While the University of Liverpool asked students to cough up £5,244 for its lowest-priced room - almost £1,200 more than the £4,054 minimum loan - Southampton charged £4,374 and Nottingham asked for £4,951 for a catered room.
The £6,200 bill handed to students at King’s College London was also found to exceed the £5,654 basic loan given to students in the capital by almost £550.
Minimum maintenance loan ‘rent gap’
University of Liverpool - £1,190
University of Nottingham - £897
University of Southampton - £320
King’s College London - £546
Unlike the tuition fee loan - which all students are entitled to in full - the means-tested maintenance loan is determined by parental income.
While students outside London whose parents earn £25,000 or less can borrow £8,700 for living costs, this figure plummets by more than half to £4,054 if an undergraduate’s parents take home £62,215 or more, the implication being that they will pick up the slack for essentials like food and books.
But, as many students confided during interviews, this is not always possible. While some parents are simply not able to hand over thousands of pounds, others are struggling to support multiple children at university.
“Students and their parents regularly get in touch with us asking how they’re supposed to afford to live, especially when the pitiful maintenance loan doesn’t even cover rent in some cases,” said Save the Student’s money expert Jake Butler, adding that it’s leaving families “under a lot of financial and psychological strain”.
Just four of the 20 Russell Group universities which supplied data to HuffPost UK or published accommodation details online offered accommodation this year that would leave minimum loans students more than £1,000 to live on after housing costs - the equivalent of around £25 a week.
Undergraduates receiving the basic living costs loan and staying in the least expensive accommodation at the universities of Glasgow, Manchester and York would have less than this amount to spend each week - despite having to share their room with another student.
Martha Makin, now a second year at the University of Bristol, found herself working “twice the hours of my studies” in a local Co-op store as a fresher in order to make ends meet after her £5,600 room in halls left her with “about £50 of my maintenance loan”.
“I applied for the cheapest ones and I got that one - you just get given it really, you don’t get much of a say.”
While her parents - a primary school headteacher and a nursing student - had saved up some money for her, the 19-year-old still found herself needing to do as many as 18 hours a week paid work to afford the essentials.
“It 100% made it harder to do coursework and exams,” Martha said. “And I had to leave lectures early to make sure I got to work on time - it’s just a stress I think students could do without.”
In her eyes, the government should leave it up to students to decide how much they borrow while at university, doing away with means-tested lending.
“I think if they offered you three different amounts and you could choose which one you wanted, that would be better,” the social policy student said. “I would always choose the greater amount because I know I will be able to pay it back eventually and it would cause a lot less stress and worry about money.”
But it is not just children of ‘high-earners’ that are being impacted by the system. Research revealed that the maintenance loan offered to a student with two parents earning the ‘average’ UK wage - £29,574 according to the Office for National Statistics - would still not be able to afford the cheapest accommodation offered at the University of Liverpool.
Meanwhile, with a loan of £4,955 on offer, they would be left with less than £1,000 to live on if they were offered even the least expensive rooms at the universities of Oxford, Nottingham and Southampton.
Like many of her classmates, Liverpool University student Micaela Tracey-Ramos found that her maintenance loan was completely drained by the cost of living in halls last year - around £5,500 for a single room.
But with other children also at university, the 19-year-old’s parents - who both work as chefs - were unable to support her. “It made it really difficult - I think they felt under a lot of pressure to give me money when they could,” Micaela said.
Unable to turn to her family for funds, she found a job working in a club. However, with shifts stretching from 10pm to 5am, it quickly began to take its toll on her studies, social life and health.
“I had to work really late at night in the middle of the week and it made it so much harder getting into uni,” she explained. “It was quite stressful - it probably made my mental health a bit worse. But it wasn’t like I couldn’t do it - I had to work to live.”
However, having now lived in private rented accommodation, she doesn’t believe that her room in halls was worth the money. “I had quite a small single room - it was ensuite and then I shared a kitchen with six or seven people.
“Compared to the rest of Liverpool, it’s definitely not worth £130 a week - you could get a nice place on the docks for that.”
Following in the footsteps of UCL’s famous Cut The Rent campaign, Liverpool’s Guild of Students is now calling on the university to reduce its “unjustifiably high” accommodation costs, with the group estimating the standard room in halls costs 110% of the average maintenance loan.
“Students are angry about it and really struggling to pay,” said Guild president Rory Hughes.
“The university should get on board with this,” he continued. They should have an affordable accommodation strategy, they should take into account students’ wellbeing and the effect on education high rents have.”
The cost of halls is not just taking a toll on students fresh out of school, though.
One mature student at the University of Sheffield - who asked not to be named - described how he ended up living in campervan after he realised he would not be able to afford the cost of postgraduate accommodation.
After paying tuition fees, the 50-year-old, who studies in the university’s Department of Sociological Studies, found he was left with just under £2,500 of his NHS bursary - far less than he needed to pay for a room in halls. Having had a minimum wage job before starting his studies, he had little in the way of savings.
“The university only permits us to work 16 hours a week in the first term and then not at all during placement, which is from February to July,” he said. “The figures clearly don’t add up.”
While the postgraduate student admits he enjoys the freedom of living in a campervan, there are major downsides.
“It can be quite isolating as it’s not really appropriate to invite friends back and sometimes you don’t feel part of uni life,” he said. “There are the risks of someone breaking in or attacking you, though I have had very few problems of that nature.
He also worries about the campervan breaking down and not being able to afford to fix it. “It can get cold,” he continues, “but I have a gas cooker in it and a diesel heater, so it warms up very quickly. It also has a toilet, water supply and a fridge and there are showers at the uni.
“Another option would be to take up cheaper private rented accommodation, but I have a lot of experience and deep mistrust of landlords and really do not want to go through the stress of dealing with them again,” he added. “It would still be largely unaffordable anyway.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told HuffPost UK:
“We have increased support for full-time students’ living costs by 3.2% for the current academic year, with a further 2.8% increase for 2019/20. Disadvantaged students starting their courses this year have access to the largest ever amounts of cash-in-hand support for their living costs.
“The post-18 education and funding review is looking at financial support available to students, including how disadvantaged students and learners receive maintenance support.”
Responses from universities
A spokesperson for the University of Cardiff said that accommodation fees “are subject to a detailed review each session, and our fees are compared against other Russell Group universities, local universities and the local private sector residences.
“We remain extremely competitive with a range of fee options and residences types,” they added.
A representative from LSE said: “Accommodation fees for LSE-managed residences, which are based in central London, are reviewed annually taking into account inflation, the cost of running each hall, the demand for places and the rental levels locally.
Adding that rent is discussed at the School’s finance committee and approved by its council - with students represented on both bodies - they continued: “LSE has also recently created accommodation bursaries to support those on the lowest household incomes.
“These are additional funds for first year students, to all those who are eligible for an LSE Bursary. In 2017 Residential Services awarded £292,500 in accommodation bursaries.” This increased by 13% to £336,250 this year, they added.
“The School also offers 31 week contracts to help keep the cost of accommodation to a minimum. As a comparison, most private accommodation in London operates 51 week contracts.”
Meanwhile, spokesperson from Queen Mary University of London told HuffPost UK that its student accommodation was more affordable than purpose-built private student residences, as well as halls offered by other London universities, will 2,200 rooms below the Greater London Authority calculation for affordable student room rent.
“We also offer 38 week tenancies to undergraduate students, which makes the annual cost of our accommodation approximately half that of the direct let private purpose built schemes in the immediate locality,” they added.
A University of Liverpool spokesperson, said: “The University of Liverpool offers high quality accommodation, most of which has been built or refurbished within the last nine years. Accommodation fees cover a range of costs, including 24/7 pastoral and wellbeing support, meals in catered halls and use of fitness facilities, where available.
“We provide bursaries to UK students with low household incomes to support them with living costs. In the last academic year (2017-18) we provided in excess of £22m in scholarships and bursaries to our students.”
A representative for the University of Nottingham said: “We work hard to provide quality, catered, campus accommodation at competitive rates for more than 7,000 students.
“The government’s maintenance loan of up to £8,700 is calculated according to household income, whereas more than a third of our undergraduates are eligible for an additional University bursary of up to £3,000 each year.”
A spokesperson for the University of Southampton said that the institution offers a wide-range of rooms for differing student budgets. “This year we have seen an increase in demand for our premium rooms, which leaves more options for those with a tighter budget,” they said.
“Accommodation fees are payable in termly instalments and these fees include services (gas, electric and water); WiFi and high speed internet connection; 24-hour support services and security; a variety of on-site facilities (common rooms and communal computers) and contents insurance (depending upon the possessions students wish to insure). Most University-managed accommodation also include a Unilink bus pass (worth up to £300 per year) as part of fees paid.”
A King’s College London spokesperson added: “We are committed to keeping rents as low as possible. We involve students in the annual rent setting process to maximise the number of rooms priced at the lowest possible rates. These discussions take into account costs of running the residences and associated services. Our rents are in the same range of other London-based Russell Group universities.”