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.
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You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame