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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 17:58 GMT
Help! My student rent is soaring
Aston University student Ambrish Patel wrote to the BBC News website about his struggle to pay his rent.

Ambrish Patel
Ambrish Patel is angry he is having to pay student rent for a whole year
He is staying in a private hall and is furious that next year, changes to the tenancy agreement will put his rent up by hundreds of pounds and cost him more than his entire student loan.

We sent our reporter Jenny Matthews to investigate. If you have any other story ideas - send them to the BBC using the form at the bottom of the page.


Twenty-year-old Ambrish Patel, from Leicester, is nearing the end of his second year of a technology and enterprise management course at Aston University in the centre of Birmingham.

Surviving on his student loan has been tough enough in the last two years, he says, but now housing problems are about to make his third year a whole lot more difficult.

How students live at The Heights in Birmingham

The owner of his private halls of residence, Unite Group Plc, is changing his contract so that instead of paying for 40 weeks a year - totting up to about 3,275 out of his 4,195 grant - he must pay for 51 weeks.

Along with a new 250 utility charge and optional internet charges, it takes his rent bill to 4,643.75 - several hundred pounds more than his 4,195 loan.

Mr Patel is so frustrated by the change in terms at his halls, called the Heights, that he has launched a petition against Unite.

"Unite brand themselves as offering "student" accommodation but how can they do this when the total rent charges are more than what a student can get from a student loan?" he says.

"I'll be in my final year so I will finish by May, so I don't want the rooms until the end of June."

Mr Patel says he is already "very in debt" and having to supplement his income by returning to Leicester most weeks to work as a computer administrator.

Flexibility

But Unite insists most of its students prefer the year-long contract, which is why it has been introduced.

The Heights' 40-week tenancy deal was only an introductory special offer for a few dozen tenants, says a spokeswoman.

AMBRISH PATEL'S FINANCES
2005-2006
Loan: 4,195
Rent (inc utilities and internet): 3,275
Spare: 920
2006-2007
Loan: 4,195
Rent (inc utilities and internet): 4,643.75
Shortfall: 448.75
"We've really done quite a lot of research into 51-week tenancies, and we do find that our customers are actually wanting that.

"It saves them moving their belongings, they get jobs often in the city where they live during the summer, and many of them - particularly third years - are doing their finals... they want to stay in their rooms and have the flexibility to come and go."

The annual contract is particularly appealing to overseas students, says the spokeswoman.

And besides, she says, students have a choice. The Heights provides high standard accommodation at "competitive rents and great value", within walking distance of the university.

Students "can choose to live above a kebab shop or whatever, or they can choose to live in a private hall, and the market is open to them just to choose that".

'Expensive'

But Mr Patel does not believe he can just go and choose somewhere else.

The problem as he sees it is that Aston University is in the centre of the city, with very little nearby accommodation available.

SOME HOUSING CHOICES FOR ASTON'S STUDENTS
Campus (Lakeside): 89.80
Share of city centre flat: 75-80
Unite's private halls (The Heights): from 81.25
Unite's private halls(Londonderry House): from 78
Standard campus accommodation: 57.45
Room in private rented house (Erdington): 40-50 exclusive
Room in rented house (Aston Brook Green) 37.50 - 40
Source: Aston Students' Guild (prices are approximate, for academic year 2005-2006, per week)
"If you wanted to live in a house you'd have to live in Erdington, which is a bus ride away," he says - and once you factor in transport costs, "it is still very expensive".

The whole debate perhaps sheds lights on the changing world of student accommodation.

A few years ago students might typically rent a room within university-owned accommodation for one year, and after that rent a flat or crumbling terraced house in groups of three or four, from a private landlord.

Aston university, for example - which does not endorse the Heights accommodation and is not linked to it - guarantees University-owned campus accommodation for first year students, with 39 week contracts.

Market forces

But private halls of residence, like the Heights, have been springing up all over the country in recent years, as student numbers expand and demand for housing rockets.

Estimates are that anything between 100,000 and 440,000 of the UK's 2.2m university students now live in some sort of privately-run accommodation.

The Heights
The Heights owner says it offers "competitive rents and great value"
The National Union of Students is keeping a wary eye on private providers - saying they offer "another option" in the student market but "tend to be a bit more expensive".

A spokesman praised the major providers for, on the whole, happily signing up to a code of standards, but added: "There's perhaps an increase in the terms of the cost of the halls over and above inflation."

Mr Patel's spat comes as increasing pressure on student finances, and in particular worries over next year's introduction of higher tuition fees for some students, have been blamed for a drop in university applications in England.

Stephen Abbots, vice-president of education and welfare at Aston's Students' Guild, is very concerned about the potential impact of such private halls on the whole student market.

STUDENT FINANCE FROM 2006 (ENGLAND)
Tuition fees (currently capped at 1,175) to vary from nothing to 3,000 for new starters
Grants of up to 2,700 for families on income below 17,501, tapering away to nought on family incomes of 37,425
Student Loans: Maximum amount (currently 4,195; 5,175 for London) will be 4,405 (6,170 in London) for new starters
Everyone qualifies for 75% of the maximum (about 3,300); the rest is means-tested
Average loan taken in 2005/6 about 3,400

He is worried that students are moving into the "obviously very appealing" Heights-style accommodation, without really considering fully whether they can actually afford it.

And if they eventually realise they cannot - it might be too late to move into a cheaper rented house or individual flat.

"The main problem is more and more private landlords are starting to sell up.

"Landlords are not filling their houses straightaway like they used to. A lot of them are starting to think 'well, if I can sell the house now I'll get a bit of money for it' and doing that instead," he says.

So what about next year? Where will Mr Patel go?

"I don't know yet," he said.

"I would stay here if I could get a 41-week contract, but if not I would have to consider somewhere else.

"I might have to commute from Leicester."



If you would like to comment on this story, or suggest another, you can do so by clicking on the link below.

Tell us about your experiences of students' digs. Send us your pictures to yourpics@bbc.co.uk or MMS them to 07725 100 100.


The comments below reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:

I'm in Unite halls in Southampton and they are expensive but still cheaper than inferior University Halls. It's universities that rip their students off the most.
Tom, Southampton

...once again only the rich will be able to send their children to University. Once again another example of an increasingly collapsing society with no morals! I will be pulling my children out of school at 14 and sending them to work in a call centre/mill to help with my mortgage!!!
Mark, Coventry

From experience I believe most students enjoy the high priced student accommodation just in the first year, and then move into more affordable flats/houses for the subsequent years. I'm not excusing this price hike but we can't exactly demand these luxury flats and not expect to pay for them. Most students work in the holiday periods and this helps pay off chunks of debt each year; and maybe one should work that little bit extra to live this life of luxury!
Andy, Bristol, UK

I am too feeling Ambrish's pain! I finance myself through university but because my parents earn a fairly high wage, I have to get by on the minimum loan. I am 600 out of pocket before I even consider eating! This is why so many students have to take up part time jobs (I personally have two). Many students are not the lazy loafers people expect but hard workers who juggle university work, a job and a social life.
Michelle Hicks, Brighton, East Sussex

It's a backdoor way of pricing poorer students out
Anon, Oxford
Try living at Oxford University. College owned properties go by "Oxford inflation" called the Van Noorden Index. They then increase rent by anything from 6-15% above Van Noorden, on an entirely arbitrary basis. After students have been locked into having college rooms, the rent is increased by as much as 15-20%. This year I pay 100 per week for my room. In my first year, it was 70. After paying my college bills at the start of term, there is nothing left over from my loan. It's a backdoor way of pricing poorer students out of Oxford.
Anon, Oxford

I also attend Aston University, personally in my opinion if you choose to live in a posh flat, with an en suite bathroom and kitchen in the city centre you should expect to pay a high price. You can't decide to live there and then decide actually it's too expensive, I'm living five minutes walk away from the university and my rent is 41 pounds a week. I'm sure the ten minute travel from Erdington would not add up to the thirty or forty pounds he'd save weekly. I just hope he doesn't go in to finance management!
Scott C, Birmingham

One summer at university, I occupied my friend's room in a shared house for 5 weeks while he went home. Until then, I had lived in university-owned properties, but this was a private let and I couldn't believe the state of it. Some rooms had damp problems but the most disgusting part was the slugs. They would get into the downstairs kitchen & living room, and also the upstairs bathroom. Every morning I had to rinse the slugs out of the shower before I got in it, and the shower itself ran at barely more than a trickle. I couldn't wait to get out of there after 5 weeks, yet I knew people who lived there for 3 years!
Amanda, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK




SEE ALSO
Demand for student places falls
15 Feb 06 |  Education
Rowdy students 'must be tackled'
24 Jan 06 |  Education
Students 'owe more, worry less'
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Code to improve student halls
02 Nov 04 |  Education
Gas works 'brings housing crisis'
18 Oct 05 |  South West Wales
Q&A: Student fees
14 Sep 05 |  Education
What university is going to cost
05 Aug 05 |  Education

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