Andre Jockyman Roithmann
22 February 2015
It will not be long before students start missing classes and deadlines en masse because of accommodation preoccupations. Tutors will start being asked (if they are not already): are flat viewings and interviews at letting agencies legitimate reasons for self-certificates of absence? As with the apparent majority of St Andrews students, I can relate to this: I just spent three unnecessarily stressful weeks trying to sort out my living arrangements for the next academic year; I have no doubts that my studies suffered as a result. The time I could have spent reading Plato – who held dwelling as the second “condition for life and existence”, just after food – I spent running around town filling up forms, talking to tenants, letting agents and landlords, viewing flats, and taking part in bizarre interviews. It is no surprise there was a protest this week – it is a surprise, though, that some people seemed to criticise it. Here I wish to outline the three main reasons I believe that there is a housing crisis in St Andrews, and why – though it is not entirely its fault – the University administration has a lot to answer for.
First of all: why are the prices of halls of residence going up? Currency inflation is certainly not a problem: we all read the papers. There has been a terrifying wave of cuts to the education sector over the last few years, which has caused higher education in England to become anything but public and accessible due to the raising of tuition fees. Yet how does that justify the price of a single room in St Salvator’s Hall (St Andrews’ postcard hall) to have increased to an astonishing £6,150 per “year” (actually less than nine months)? That makes a single Sallies room cost approximately £150 per week: a long shot from the government’s statistics for average rents in Scotland, which range from £60 to £80 pounds! And it cannot be said that the difference covers catering and such, because I have seen a few gluttons in my life, but never one who ate fifty quid’s worth of food per week… I have also heard nothing of the extra costs going toward staff salaries – the same staff that a couple of years ago were forced to go on strike over the meagre pay and imposed de facto salary deductions. At the moment, with the closure of Fife Park and – to my knowledge – no contingency plans in place, there are only two halls of residence that offer accommodation below the £6000 mark: Andrew Melville and Albany Park (shared room arrangements do cost less, but I am sure most returning residents would value the privacy that, in halls, only a single room can provide). I am aware of and appreciate the rebuilding and refurbishment of Fife Park, but even so what the University can do about the housing crisis right now is this: do not include eleven out of the thirteen halls of residence in the “no go” rent zone for those of us on a budget. To further illustrate the point, the Scottish Government’s database also describes the average income of Scottish households to be approximately £220 per week: it is easy to see why many people would not even consider applying to St Andrews – especially when you add on the additional costs of the “St Andrews experience”: expensive balls, dinners and such.
My second point of contention actually has nothing to do with cost. It is merely the methods employed by letting agents with regards to flat allocation and viewing. Firstly there is no standard method – as each company does and asks prospective tenants to do whatever they want. One letting agent (I will refrain from naming any here) asked my group to write them a letter alongside the basic application form, which should contain information such as “…how long you have known each other, if you have lived together before, studies, interests, etc.” How impartial will they be when “considering my application”? What if none of us is an especially good writer while another group has a Shakespeare-reincarnate? Common sense would indicate they are looking for tenants who will not turn their property into a “party flat” and risk damage, so should I just lie and say I study eight hours a day, meditate silently for another eight, and then sleep the remaining eight to guarantee an offer? It seems like I am applying for a job at a government intelligence agency, my life being examined for any signs of me being a double agent. Maybe MI5 and the NSA should employ St Andrews letting agents on their counter-espionage and surveillance teams. On the same topic, the flat viewing system is extremely exploitative. It is a reasonable and good thing that letting agencies will require prospective tenants to see properties before applying, but many leave the arrangements for viewings at the hands of the current tenants! How easy, just how easy would it be to use the system to your friends’ advantage? I remember knocking at the door of a certain North Street flat and asking the resident tenant when I could see it, the tenant told us to come back on Wednesday: by Tuesday the flat was gone… Also the very idea of not even calling or sending an e-mail to the tenant beforehand seems wrong; a game of luck for the prospective tenants (who, after all, have classes to attend) and the resident ones (who have their privacy continuously harassed by strangers). And then there are the interviews… I hope The Stand writes an article soon on how to dress for one of those…
Finally we have the last point, and perhaps the one upon which we have the least control over: private property prices. Now this may sound like a proper middle-class rant – which in no way I see as derogatory, Aristotle indeed exalted rule by those “in the middle” (economically as well as ideologically) – but again the prices we are presented with are simply surreal. Once more I will refer to the already-mentioned statistics on average rent and household income published by the Scottish Government, and the possible implications of these for the image of the University as one prone to elitism. However, little can be done with regard to this as I see it: the market has its rules and it was born on these isles. Competition, one would expect, would drive prices down, but in our case it seems there is no competition: there is firstly the physical limitation of the town, which is already quite small, and secondly a student body already used to quite expensive university-owned dwellings, as I have previously mentioned. How would we boycott a certain over-priced agency, landlord, or even street if there is a house shortage in the first place? The exorbitantly expensive “private hall of residence” currently being built is the icing on the cake – it would be cheaper to rent a small flat in one of the neighbouring towns in Fife, buy a cheap car and drive into town (petrol included), than to spend the £8000-9800 being currently asked for a fifty-one weeks’ tenancy at the property in question.
For these three reasons I do not and cannot understand the criticisms geared toward the student protest on the issue, and the “keep calm and carry on”-style articles being published on the matter. I do not want to use the phrase “backdoor privatisation”, but there is a clear threat that the University of St Andrews will no longer be – if it still is – accessible to the wider population of Scotland – or even the United Kingdom for that matter – due to the sheer living costs associated with it. Education is a wonderful and priceless gift of hope and self-improvement, and should be – alongside healthcare – the very last public service to become exclusive due to any sort of political or economic crisis.
For the Scottish Government’s statistics http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2013/12/1859/6