Few people can honestly say that, when they think of St Andrews, they think of a safe haven for the financially insecure. The images of red gowns, grand architecture and the sea of black-ties come ball season are but a few of the stereotypes St Andrews has become accustomed to being known by. Fewer people still, after spending some time here would say the town is in any way affordable to even your average Joe, never mind someone who finds themselves coming to St Andrews from a background with as much as a hint of disadvantage.
Technically, I come from such a background. My household income is around £30k, I went to a state-school and I don’t have my parents’ AmEx to earn an obscene number of air miles on. However, owing to the relative generosity of the English student financing system, I just about get by in the town. Although, for a great many students, particularly my Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, life in the bubble isn’t so easy. Now, I don’t intend to simply add to the cacophony of voices bemoaning general failings in university policy, nor simply re – peat vague claims about how elitist St Andrews can be, for these are meaningless at best and unhelpful at worst. Instead, I wish to point out some of the mathematics of the affordability issue (dangerous territory for an IR student, granted), to highlight specifically some of the difficulties of living here, and to open up a discussion about where to go in the future.
Firstly, let’s take a bog-standard student. Let’s call her Sarah, from Renfrewshire. Having toiled hard, Sarah from Renfrewshire bagged her dream spot here, ready to stand upon the shoulders of giants and make her way in the world. But, there’s a problem. Sarah’s parents work hard full-time and pull in the National Living Wage, giving her a household income of £27k. Sarah’s parents also have a mortgage and two other dependents to pay for. Not to worry, surely the Student Award Agency Scotland (SAAS) will save the day?
Sadly, no. You see, as a young student, Sarah is only entitled to a maximum of £6,250 for the year. This, coupled with the St Andrews entrant bursary, takes her total up to £7,750. Sarah, as a First-Year, doesn’t get to choose entirely which halls she gets to stay in, she opts for Standard Self-Catered as a first choice, but with so few places she misses out and gets her second option, En suite self-catered in David Russell Apartments.
Being planted squarely in DRA springs a problem for Sarah. Her yearly rent for her 39 week stay in St Andrews is £7,073. She then needs to buy her books for class which, even used, will set her back about £100 for the year, £30 per semester for the luxury of fresh-smelling garments and an almightily generous fiver for stationary, Sarah is left with £547 to last the year. Split that thirty-nine ways and she is left with fourteen whole pounds per week for food and water. That’s right, one followed by a four. Now, I’ve gotten a reputation for being as tight as a fly’s rear end, but even I’d have a hard time living off that, especially in one of the most notoriously expensive towns in the country.
The solution is obvious, Sarah should get a job, right? Well, maybe. But also, we must question what authorities are responsible for having accommodation costs so incredibly high. I say incredibly high as similar accommodations at other universities are greatly cheaper. For this, I will use New Carnegie Court (NCC) Hall of Residence at the University of Aberdeen. The rooms are broadly similar to that of DRA’s, the distance from campus is similar, the amenities are similar, if not better, and so on. Yet, an en suite in NCC costs just shy of six thousand pounds, over a thousand less, for the year.
The solution for narrowing this discrepancy isn’t going to be straightforward (especially considering the recent HMO hike covered by my colleagues in this edition’s News), but that isn’t an excuse to avoid addressing it. I personally do not have the resources to undertake such an investigation, but it seems plainly clear to me that somewhere down the line something is going badly wrong. If the cost is driven up by council tax, for example, then the University and the Students’ Association needs to lobby as hard as possible – firing on all cylinders – to bring some reprieve to the town. If the fault for the gargantuan fee lies on the door of University policy, it should be frank with itself and adjust accordingly. I know that ‘adjust accordingly’ is rather vague, but it shouldn’t be up to a second-year Viewpoint Editor to devise a grand schema à la Draco Malfoy in the Half Blood Prince. Rather, the University should take extremely seriously the outcome of the Students’ Association’s accommodation research project, which it says it will do, while each of us individually hold University managements’ feet to the fire after the research is published.
Before we even begin on the plethora of other affordability issues, Sarah is in trouble. But regardless, I showed Sarah as being left with £14 per week. Let’s say her parents manage to cobble another £16 to make it a round thirty. What now? Sarah finds herself in a town with a Tesco rumoured to be the second-most expensive in the UK, an average pint price of just under a fiver, and a trek to Aldi that should find itself part of SAS selection. I’m aware the broke student is sitting cooped up in a room, greasy-haired and living off 14 pence instant noodles stereotype, but is this truly a way in which we should idolise living? I love cheap chicken flavoured noodles as much as the next man, but I doubt perennially eating them for four years straight would set me up for a long, healthy life. The idea that the Sarahs of our town can feed, water and clothe themselves, even while being money savvy, let alone have any semblance of a life, is far-fetched at best. Even myself, in my relatively privileged Student Finance England-funded position (a description I would never have thought I’d be giving myself this time 18 months ago) have found myself feigning colds or making excuses to avoid that trip out with pals or that lunchtime get-together due to us feeling a pinch in our pockets. Most of us have at some point, but I’d dread to think how many find this to be the norm – the rule, rather than the exception.
So, what can be done for Sarah? What hope is there for the future? Well, as I see it, unfortunately, things look pretty bleak. While it would be nice for SAAS and other agencies to consider St Andrews in the same way SFE considers London and allow us to borrow more for our maintenance accordingly, I doubt this will happen, for there would be a reasonable claim of unfairness levelled at students from similarly pricey areas.
One clear opportunity for the University to make headway in mitigating the affordability crisis is in the form of an affordable Albany Park, once renovated. Albany served before as basic, cheap, but liveable accommodation for a great many students. Although being refurbished, it could once again fulfil this role. However, commenters who were at the consultations prior to the release of the plans in October last year aren’t exactly holding their collective breath. One ex-resident, now alumnus, commented that in consultations, “no matter how many times students said they wanted to keep basic provisions (shared bathrooms/kitchens, self-catered, smallish bedrooms) the uni kept coming back with proposals which seemed to be capitalising on Albany’s beachside potential.”
As I mentioned earlier, we can only hope that both the Students’ Association’s accommodation research provides direction on Albany, and that the University takes notice of it.
One area of hope is the increase in the prevalence of bursaries. The Accommodation Hardship fund and the Discretionary fund are good steps forward, and credit to the University where it’s due for having those. However, I wouldn’t say even here things come out smelling like roses. Ultimately, bursaries aren’t brilliantly advertised. As well as this, in my experience, the story of Sarah isn’t all that uncommon and bursaries should be used as a life-ring to save the rare soul who finds themselves overboard, not as a device by which to keep the entire ship afloat.
In summary, I find it unquestionable that St Andrews has an affordability problem, and a massive one at that. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as those from middle-earning backgrounds whose parents have a number of other dependents, are increasingly being priced out of the town. Some students are uprooting their studies here for less prestigious universities in cheaper towns either because they can’t afford it here or the financial gymnastics required to be able to afford it here simply isn’t worth it. This needs recognising more centrally than the odd St Fessdrews post. The solutions may not be easy-fixes, and it’s something we will likely need to spend months, if not years, addressing, but it’s something we must address nonetheless.