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
Show Hide image

On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University