Questions Raised About University Handling of Storage Contracts
Students and local storage companies are questioning the handling of an agreement made between the University of St Andrews and Saint Storage when students were told to return home in March 2020 because of the pandemic.
The University chose Saint Storage as a preferred supplier and agreed to cover the cost of a pack-and-store service, easing the burden of students who were not present to clear rooms themselves. Saint Storage received £373,838 from the University between 2020-2021 for the uptake of its services.
In the first year, Saint Storage received £272,588 as the University endorsed supplier. From the 2,500 rooms that were packed by Saint Storage, several students reported that items were lost, damaged or that other people’s items had ended up in their boxes.
The following year, after the UK government announced the emergence of a more infectious variant of Covid in the south of England, students were told to return home and rooms were required to be cleared once again. This time, the University launched a silent auction to find a preferred supplier.
Like a job interview, six potential storage companies were invited to bid. Each company pri- vately shared information with the University regarding cost, insurance policy, capacity, and general evidence of logistic competence.
This process of tendering is facilitated by the University to ensure that the winning supplier is selected in a fair process and allows buyers to get the best value for money by forcing suppliers to stay competitive with pricing.
Saint Storage won the silent auction and became the University’s preferential company in 2021. It received £101,250 during this time.
The Saint spoke to the owner of Saint Storage to discuss why the University would choose a small and relatively new company for the packing of thousands of rooms into boxes and putting them in storage. Saint Storage had been operating for under a year when the agreement was made in 2020.
Sketch – or Chris, he goes by either – said that while Saint Storage was new, he has 20 years experience working with students for a clothing company and his previous food wholesale business provided a frame- work for storage services. According to both Sketch and the University, Saint Storage was the only local company to offer a room packing service when the pandemic hit – the other companies were storage only.
Crucially, Sketch said that Saint Storage was also the only company that could adhere to the five-mile travel limit that was imposed in Scotland between March and June 2020. Sketch, who is a St Andrews local, said that this put Saint Storage in a position of strength to act fast and respond to the unprecedented levels of demand for storage services required by the University at a short notice.
In that first year, Saint Storage became the predominant supplier amongst students.
Students of McIntosh Hall received an email from Accommodation Services on 25 May 2020 highlighting the three options for packing up their belongings.
The options included using Saint Storage where costs would be covered, booking a slot after restrictions had been lifted to arrange personal collection or use a different provider, or disposing of all items left in the room.
The University stated that whilst Saint Storage were the “preferred supplier ”, students were free to use other companies.
Katherine Bloch, who used Saint Storage in 2020 said, “Things were straightforward in the beginning, and I was relieved that there was an affordable option for storing my belongings”.
She packed her own items using plastic containers and cardboard box- es, marking each box with her name and a description of the contents. When her belongings were returned, she was missing a box marked “kitchenware” and one plastic container that she had filled with books had been broken. She was told that all the boxes marked in her invoice had been returned and that they did not have a box matching the description in their possession.
When asked about boxes that go missing, Sketch said that each client is given a unique number. If a box goes missing it is human error. This is because occasionally an extra box will accidentally be delivered from a van on its way to multiple destinations.
He said, “Nine times out of ten someone will inform us they received an extra box. We can pick it up and go back through the day to find out where it should have gone.”
Regarding the damaged plastic container, it may have been that the box was packed above the 20-kilo weight limit. Due to the nature of carrying boxes, if a box is too heavy for lifting it is required to be repacked. Similarly, boxes containing leaking foodstuffs would also be repacked.
Sketch urged that anyone with an unresolved issue to get in touch. He said, “We don’t hide behind our phone numbers. It’s always straight to me. If someone has got genuine concerns, then get in touch.”
Helen Hale, was told that a lacrosse stick would cost £15 to store. When her items came to be delivered, this item was missing. Over a month later Saint Storage agreed to deliver the item – only to find that it was not hers. Helen was not compensated for the £15 storage nor for the stick itself, which she claims cost around £150.
Saint Storage compensates each box up to £100, with the option to pay more if desired. Katie Lee, who used Saint Storage in 2020 received the maximum pay out of £100 after she discovered that she was missing a pair of running shoes, wellies, duvet, mattress topper and linen set at a combined value of £350.
The experiences of these individuals may have been a consequence of the sheer magnitude of the operation. An average customer would require the pack and store of six boxes – one student outlier had 38 boxes – and Sketch estimates 2,500 rooms were packed. £10,000 was spent on tape alone. At the peak, Sketch was working 100-hour weeks.
He said that this occurred during a time before the vaccine, when little was known about Covid. There was an additional risk of Legionnaires – a serious lung infection caused by inhaling droplets of water from things like taps and showers that are not used often. Saint Storage by its very nature was operating in buildings that had been uninhabited for a long period of time.
“It was quite a scary time," he said.
Sketch explained that the University and Saint Storage agreement was ultimately good for the students. He added, “When you consider what they did at Durham, the university has done what is the best thing for the students here.”
It is unclear precisely what occurred at Durham, but at Brighton University, three students found that the entirety of their possessions were accidentally binned.
Agata Buksowicz, another student at St Andrews found that her suitcase had been damaged beyond the point of use. The damage was in the area around the extendable, which indicated that this had been improperly used to carry the suitcase over the main handle. She was told by Saint Storage that the cost of replacement would not be covered – she estimates the value of a replacement is somewhere between £70 to £100.
Saint Storage said that the original suitcase was faulty and was a result of her using it multiple times in the past. Saint Storage told her, “We have handled it the same as any airport baggage handler would”.
Sketch provided a general account of how damages occur and are handled.
Sketch said, "We've paid out on damages. It's 0.01% of stuff that's been broken. What we find with damages is that people are often overpacking."
Due to some complaints made by students and the sense of disorder regarding the storage operation in 2020, Harry Bremner – founder of Local Student Storage – was surprised to see that Saint Storage was successful at the silent auction in the second year.
Harry began a storage service when he was an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews six years ago. Believing that the company had the appropriate experience, Local Student Storage placed a bid at the silent auction.
The deal between Saint Storage and the University severely impacted the business of other storage companies in the area between 2020 and 2021 and Harry said it was frustrating and unclear as to why Local Student Storage had been unsuccessful.
In the silent auction, Saint Storage could provide endorsements from Ayton House, East Shore and other Halls of Residence as a result of the earlier operation in ways that the other storage companies could not.
Sketch said, “If it was me, and I’d been working with a company that had done a good job before, that has got to be in your favour overall.”
According to Sketch, Saint Storage was also “cheaper in every aspect”. The repeat business of the agreement and of customers who have returned for a third and fourth time is testament to the service provided at Saint Storage, Sketch adds.
When asked whether it would have been possible for multiple companies to have operated harmoniously as “preferred suppliers” with the University, Sketch used the example of a DRA flat to explain that with three different companies packing one flat. Difficulties would arise when it came to who was responsible for the kitchen kettle. With one company, in- surance policy is the same and unnecessary confusion could be avoided.
Ultimately, the University intended to help students during a time of uncertainty. For those that have been negatively impacted by this decision, Sketch will return to St Andrews in two weeks and students are encouraged to get in touch once more with any queries they may have.
Illustration: Bethany Morton