Is it all like the Young Ones?

The NUS's Veronica King tries to dispel some of the myths about student digs

Mention student accommodation, and the traditional images conjured up are squalid, mouldy and miserable.

People talk of 'digs' and the 'Young Ones', and reminisce cheerfully about the time they caught a lung-infection from the damp in their student house. But actually, decent student accommodation is no laughing matter. The environment you live in impacts massively on your experience at university. And when we see that over the last 3 years, there's been a 23% rise in the cost of student accommodation surely it's not too much for students to expect a decent, safe and secure home from home.

The NUS accommodation costs survey 2006 showed that students living in halls could expect to pay on average more than three thousand pounds a year, or four and a half thousand pounds if they were studying in London.

This huge cost means in real terms, students having to work more hours in part-time jobs alongside their degrees, to meet these fees. It means over the course of their studies, thousands of pounds of additional debt for students. And let's face it, this is a debt that students could well do with out, given this year's advent of top-up fees, and the fact that most students will have £9000 worth of debt merely for signing on to a course, let alone thinking about where they're going to live.

But the impact of the high cost of accommodation is far, far reaching. At the moment, about 22% of students are choosing to stay at home, and for many this is purely a finance-based decision, and a trend that is no doubt set to continue. For many students or would-be student this means they don't chose the institution which is right for them, or the course they have always aspired to study - instead they must chose from a handful of courses available locally.

All too often, these are widening participation students who may never reach their full educational potential, if they still opt to enter higher education. Ultimately students are being priced out of the student accommodation market, at a high cost to both students, but also society as a whole.

Whilst rising rent levels are a massive concern for students, there is also good news on the horizon. New rights, standards and protection brought in under the long-fought-for 2004 Housing Act mean that students are now better placed than ever before to demand decent accommodation. For too long sub-standard accommodation has been accepted as a right of passage for students. NUS are keen to stamp out this myth/ and never have we had a better chance to do so than now.

From codes of standards for halls, to licensing for Houses of Multiple Occupancy things are getting better for students. No longer should they be resigned to a life of misery in a dodgy student hovel. But despite mandatory licensing having been in place since last April, only 25-35% of eligible landlords have applied for a licence, despite facing a twenty-thousand pound fine. If this legislation is going to work, it needs to be taken seriously by all parties. And fundamentally, students need to know their rights.

And this is going to be the case even more so this April. As tenancy deposit protection schemes are introduced for students in England and Wales, no longer will 1 in 4 students unfairly lose their deposits. This is massive news, and a great improvement to consumer rights which will benefit students in particular, as they make up such a significant proportion of the private rented sector. An independent body will hold a tenants rent, and at the end of the tenancy, if there is a dispute between tenant and landlord, act to resolve it.

But in making it a success, all parties have a part to play. Students need to make use of their new rights under the schemes, landlords must face up to this new law and comply with it, and organisations like NUS and CAB must do everything in our power to promote the schemes and monitor their implementation.
Come April this year, the accommodation rights afforded to students will have improved dramatically from 13 months previously. I implore all students to empower themselves, learn about their new rights, and finally tell dodgy landlords with nasty houses- enough is enough!
For more information on the TDS please visit Shelter where you can find some great advice on the TDS and making sure that your land lord is on board

Veronica King is 22 and originally from Leeds, where she first got involved in the student movement as vice-president of an FE College in 2000. She studied Politics & Communication Studies at the University of Liverpool, graduating in July 2004.
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.