Written by Claudia Lee
In 2019 The National Union of Students carried out a survey on 2,000 students that exposed poor living conditions and exploitative relationships with landlords. The survey reported that 4 in 10 students that rented privately were living in hazardous conditions. 42% lived with damp and mold on their ceilings. More worryingly, 16% lived with electrical hazards and 9% with gas safety issues. The survey also exposed the exploitative relationships students often have with their landlords. A quarter of tenants reported that their landlord had entered their property without prior consent, a breach of the 1977 Protection from Eviction Act. Further still, since the 2002 Housing Act, security deposits must be protected in government backed schemes but only 63% of students were presented with the paperwork proving this safety.
A student from Portsmouth university explained her experience from her second-year house to me.
‘My contract included a ‘fair usage’ policy for water, gas, and electricity up to a maximum of £1056 combined. At the end of the year, we were told we had overspent by £978.70. It turns out that our water spending had been calculated off of a rateable value for the property, meaning it was not based on our usage of the water at all and instead was based off of a value decided for the property in the 70s. The rateable value for our property was £921.47. This means that no matter how much water we used that year, we would still be charged £921.47 for the usage. This in turn meant we only had £134.53 leftover from our maximum allowance of £1053 to use for gas and electricity. We took this matter to the student union, but it was only when we threatened the tenancy agency with small claims court that we got our deposits back (which they had initially refused to release due to the ‘overspend’).
A similar story was reported by a student at Liverpool University:
‘Our house received a set rate for bills, so we tried to use as little energy as possible, we used sleeping bags downstairs and piled blankets on our beds, but the set rate still expired by Christmas’. ‘Our landlord also paid the bills under my housemates name and on one occasion paid it late so we got an extra charge’.
This is an example of Fuel poverty which is covered by the 2019 survey. More than half of student renters limited the amount of time they had their heating on to save money on their bills and 17% reported that they did not have control of the heating in their home. The student from Liverpool also had their deposit withheld, the landlords sent photographs of the houses condition as their reasoning, these included a small weed in the front garden, crumbs in the oven and a spider web in a corner of one of the rooms. The student house took them to small claims court but received just over half of the £900 deposit back. This is a common case for students as the 2019 study shows. For the students that recorded having their deposits withheld a quarter (27%)challenged the deductions formally but ended up paying them anyway in a similar proportion, whilst 24% disagreed but didn’t formally challenge the decision, largely because they thought they would lose their deposits or get charged. This suggests that landlords have been withholding deposits under the assumption that students are too inexperienced to challenge their decision.
Together these firsthand accounts and the 2019 survey are indicative of the rising trend of marketisation that has shaped university policy since the 1970’s. Margaret Thatcher’s market ideology enforced tax cuts as political orthodoxy, so in 1985 selective funding began by separating the teaching and research parts of the student grant. Tony Blaire radicalized this process in the 90’s by increasing fees to £3,000 in 2004 and converting the loans onto an income contingent basis. By 2010 student fees had been raised to £9000. Despite Blairs claims, university fees were not a simple development but a radical departure from the history of higher education.
A paper written by Robert Anderson explains how State aid for universities predates 1919 (when the University Grants Committee was established). As early as 1889 universities received a Treasury Grant, this was raised to £150,000 in 1911. Further still, the international competition from World War One pushed the state to double their spending on university education which rose from 1 million to 2 million pounds between 1919 and 1939. After the Second World War there was a more significant shift away from elite to mass higher education endorsed by the 1962 Anderson Committee and the 1963 Robbins report.
These two laws abolished fees and entitled students to a maintenance grant. In reminding us of this history, Anderson holds the institutional amnesia that surrounds the history of state involvement in higher education to account. Anderson explains that it works in the favour of universities to forget state aid before 1919, because this allows them to align the beginning of state aid with the UGC: an institution that resembles university autonomy. Anderson’s paper provides the evidence that higher education has been transformed from a social right to a product in a market, embracing the modern mode of market rationality that is Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism requires the self to be seen as an enterprise and transforms human goals into types of self-investment. The image of a student in society is no longer associated with education but has been recast as a vital part of the market and therefore vulnerable to its exploitative forces.
A lot of people have countered the current system of fees for higher education with a call to abolish student fees, but this would be both politically impractical and impossible. Lib dems ran on this promise in 2016 only to abandon it once they achieved a coalition, it also featured in the labour manifesto for the 2019 election which they lost.
By remembering the history of state involvement in higher education, the trend of government policy towards university fees since the 70’s is undermined. This history also reveals that the most practical and effective opposition to marketisation is to lower fees and enforce core state funding and a network of support for students. This would resemble a better balance of interests as well as aligning with the history of state aid in higher education.