On Friday 10 March at 12 pm, Refugee Action St Andrews (RASA) and the Campaign for Affordable Student Housing, (CASH) organised a protest against the University’s affiliation with Mears Group. This is a deeply controversial housing provider which RASA says “abuses and violates the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees.”
In 2019, UK-based Mears Group was awarded three government contracts to provide accommodation and support services for asylum seekers. Whilst Mears claim their asylum accommodation is safe and "fit for purpose", there have been concerns raised by campaigners and human rights groups about the standard of accomodation provided.
In an open letter to the University, RASA states, "There have been reports of pregnant women living amid bed bug infestations, and reports of multiple families being left without running water and adequate plumbing systems, so toilets overflow and cannot be flushed.”
Mears Student Life – a product of Mears Group – has provided the University of St Andrews with accommodation for students living in Dundee. This partnership began in 2020. The University told The Saint that this move was “part of our planning to address the issues of private sector accommodation availability in St Andrews.”
Rishi Pandya, a second-year student, lived in the Mears accommodation known as The Old Mill in Dundee.
Mr Pandya said, "My experience living in Old Mill accommodation in Dundee was nothing short of horrible."
"Mould was commonplace and other students named a WhatsApp group 'Mouldy Mill Apartments'. The paper-thin walls meant that sleep was a luxury, as noise from neighbouring rooms and halls often disrupted any chance of rest. The overall sense of isolation was palpable, making it difficult to connect with fellow residents and create a sense of community."
Mr Pandya added, "It was an experience marked by discomfort and the constant struggle to find comfort and solace in an inhospitable environment."
Mr Pandya did not return to Old Mill in his second semester. After the winter break, he chose to commute from home in Edinburgh, taking the 1-hour train each day. Mr Pandya said of the Mears accommodation, "it was a challenging place to call home."
At the protest last month, members of CASH, RASA, and unaffiliated students met outside the office of Principal Sally Mapstone on North Street. They called for the company to be held accountable for its actions and demanded that the university sever all ties with Mears Group.
In the open letter, RASA states, “Over 140 St. Andrews students now reside in the accommodation block, where serious issues have been reported; including damp and mould and prolonged waits for service repairs, stretching over weeks and even months at a time.”
Mears Student Life, the product of Mears Group, claims to provide accommodation “to suit every student”. This includes one-bed apartments, “spacious studios”, as well as flats for multiple residents.
The University, however, defended their affiliation.
The University told The Saint, “Prior to the acquisition of rooms at the Old Mill, the University undertook an inspection of the Mears accommodation, speaking to current residents and reviewing the facilities. We found this to be an acceptable living environment for our students and in line with our requirements to provide safe and affordable student accommodation. For students living in Dundee, we have invested in a dedicated night bus, a Halls Life programme, and expanded space for our commuter students in St Andrews.”
RASA also condemns the parent company, Mears Group. RASA says that Mears Group placed asylum seekers in accommodation without completing necessary safety checks.
RASA states, “Mears has been accused of providing ‘pressure cooker’ accommodation to those seeking asylum, meaning that there is often lack of ventilation in the rooms provided and so families are unable to live in comfort with fire alarms going off when cooking, rooms being filled with smoke and more.”
In response to these claims, The University told The Saint, “We note that the claims referring to Mears and the provision of accommodation for refugees date from 2020 and 2021, and that these have in large part been refuted by Mears. We have, however, encouraged Mears to respond directly to the legitimate questions and concerns raised by some of our students, and we have stressed to the company that St Andrews takes its responsibilities as a University of Sanctuary very seriously.”
In 2020, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published a report that found some instances of inadequate and unsafe living conditions in Mears Group accommodation for asylum seekers.
At the protest which took place last month, a large crowd of students came together in opposition to the University’s affiliation with Mears Group. Demonstrators chanted and held signs with slogans such as "Tears for Mears", “Mears Rears its Ugly Head”, and "Mouldy Mears" in reference to the claims of neglect, poor housing, and disregard of the Mears Group.
Several students spoke out against the company's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Catriona Bruce, Sacha Weiss, and Tooba Ahmed were among those who addressed the crowd, sharing stories of individuals and families who had been housed in substandard conditions and left without adequate support.
Their speeches highlighted the need for change and called on the university to explain its relationship with Mears and its commitment to cutting all ties with the Mears Group.
The University said, “Finally, for context, St Andrews currently provides more university-managed accommodation per head of student population than any other university in the UK, outside of the Oxbridge colleges (approximately 40%).”
The Mears Group has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Photo: Sacha Weiss