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Ever to Extort? University Accused of Using “loophole” to Increase Rents

The University of St Andrews has been accused of using a loophole to increase rents in University Managed Accommodation (UMA). The University hit back at the claims made by the Campaign for Affordable Student Housing (CASH) claiming they were “malicious, without foundation and are intended to deliberately mislead students”.

The University of St Andrews rejects the claims made on social media. The University told The Saint, "Rents in halls and managed accommodation will rise next year, by approximately 8%, to address major increases in energy, material and maintenance costs, and general inflation."

The University also emphasised that it is custom for Accomodation Fees to increase in accordance with CPI (consumer price inflation) each year.

Although rent increases in Scotland have been capped at 3 per cent by the government, an exemption has been made for student accommodation. This exemption applies for any property let by the University to students. This means that university managed properties – where the university acts as a letting agent, taking a 15 per cent cut – are not bound by the rent cap that other letting agencies face.

CASH claims that this “loophole” allows the University to increase rents by 15 per cent or more in some of their UMA properties. CASH came to these conclusions from the groups’ own survey of students’ experiences in the housing crisis. The scope of this survey is unknown. The University however, strenuously denies CASH's claims.

The University told The Saint that CASH’s claims are “without foundation”. Barry Will, CASH’s Director, responded by saying that the University was, “ignorant to the experiences of students”, and that “undermining the testimony of students is undermining students themselves”.

CASH also railed against the rent increases of 8.3 per cent in all University Halls except for Whitehorn, where the increase is only 5 per cent. Mr Will said CASH were, “ready to do everything we can to stop the increases” and that the University position was “just not good enough”.

The University told The Saint, “We recognise that the current cost-of-living crisis is difficult for everyone, which is why we are investing more than £500,000 in a range of measures designed to support students and staff, including a major travel subsidy and meal deals which are proving exceptionally popular. It is also why the Student President pushed so hard to peg rent increases below CPI, and to increase the support available to students in most need.”

Despite this, Mr Will continues to question the University’s efforts to make staying in St Andrews more accessible and affordable. Mr Will said, “At no point have the University reached out to widening access students, despite Covid, a cost-of-living crisis, and a housing crisis”.

Additionally, Mr Will claims, the University’s response ignores various testimonies from unnamed students, such as one submission from the CASH’s Instagram page, @standrewscash. One student said, “The rent increase is something that makes my future here at St Andrews seem very bleak”. When reaching out to their advisor about this issue, the student was advised to, “Take an official leave of absence until I can afford it.”

Mr Will described the University’s failure in catering to students of a lower economic background. As he told The Saint, “I’m not just a quota.” To Principal Dame Sally Mapstone, who received her Damehood for her commitment to inclusion and accessibility, he asks, “Where is your commitment to students of widening access?”

CASH condemned him for "signing off and endorsing" the rent increase.

Focus has also been drawn to the Student Union President Juan Pablo Rodriguez’s role in the negotiation of rent increases. CASH condemned him for “signing off and endorsing” the rent increase. Furthermore, Mr Will said that Mr Rodriguez was not aware of student’s housing issues at the University. He added, “University had exploited [Juan’s] lack of power and will over housing policy”.

Mr Rodriguez strenuously denied this saying he was “surprised” and “offended by CASH saying that”. When asked his opinion on the University’s description of CASH’s allegations as “malicious, without foundation and are intended to deliberately mislead students”, Mr Rodriguez told The Saint, “It feels like that”. The President also alleged that CASH had been consulted over the rent increase but had deliberately omitted this from their social media posts saying, “It feels like an intentional omission to me”.

Mr Rodriguez acknowledged that he was “not entirely happy” with the settlement following his negotiation with the University, but said it was “not a bad deal”. He pointed to hard won increases in the student accommodation award from £1500 to £1750, and the rent increase being significantly less than the rate of inflation.

He pointed to hard won increases in the student accommodation award from £1500 to £1750

The president also called out his critics telling The Saint, “I’d love to sit back and see them get a shower of reality if they are in my position next year. You may have a lot of drive and a lot of good intentions, but you have to do the best you can with the hand you have”.

Mr Rodriguez gave his own opinion on University Managed Accommodation. He said, “The many limitations a letting agent has which the University doesn’t keep properties away from short-term letting managers such as Airbnb.” He did however acknowledge that this was “a necessary evil until Fife Council puts a cap on short term let licenses.”

All in all, the Council, University and Union response to the housing crisis remains – according to the President – “a work in progress”.

Illustration: Edward Emery

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