Freshers’ Week fears for off-campus students

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For the second year in succession Lancaster University has found itself oversubscribed, with some 200 new students having to be helped to find off-campus accommodation in the weeks running up to the start of term.

Accommodation teams from the University and Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) have been largely successful in housing students, but disappointment and worry are still rife among those affected, many of whom fear for their Freshers’ Week experience in particular.

“I feel my Freshers’ Week may be affected due to the travel [between Lancaster and campus]. I know the cost of a bus pass is cheaper than many areas but it’s still £200 more than I planned for,” said Grizedale first-year Aimie Baker, one of the students affected.

An explanatory statement from the University has put the problems down to the fact that “the University is more popular than ever, partly due to its league table rankings and more students [meeting] very high entry standards this year.

Due to this unprecedented demand, not all first-year students can be housed on campus, although students who put Lancaster down as first choice and applied before the deadline have been offered rooms,” the statement said.

Head of Colleges and Student Life Hillary Simmons told SCAN that “we always allocate enough accommodation for the projected target of first year students,” indicating that the actual number of new students has overshot that target despite the fact that no places were offered through the UCAS Clearing system as was the case last year.

The University has admitted 3122 undergraduate students for 2011-12, and it has been those students who selected Lancaster as their ‘insurance’ choice, such as Baker, who have had to find off-campus accommodation.

Dr Simmons apologised to affected students on behalf of the University, and added:  “We will be asking Colleges to try to ensure ongoing support for students living off campus, particularly during the early part of term.”

LUSU Living have been called upon to help these students, providing a “comprehensive house-hunting pack” and setting up a Facebook group to provide a forum for affected students.

“The Facebook group set up by the Students’ Union has meant that I’ve been able to speak to some of the other students in the same situation which helps to make it all feel slightly less daunting,” said Jenn Pawley, an incoming Bowland student.

LUSU Communications Manager Louise Inman explained that as well as finding accommodation for stranded students, the University and the Union are establishing support systems, particularly for Freshers’ Week. “Once the students have found houses, Accommodation is going to make sure that students in the same area are in the same college and we’ll make sure the college Freshers’ Reps know where they all are,” she said.

SCAN has spoken to a number of affected students. Bowland first-year Jenn Pawley, from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, explained that “the whole situation has been really frustrating and stressful” and that “one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Lancaster was because it was a campus university and that was really important to me.”

Pawley added that “it made me really worried about how my Freshers’ Week was going to turn out and how difficult it was going to make meeting people in that first week. […] Overall I think it’s a shame that the University has put so many students in this situation.”

Undergraduates are not the only students affected; Federica Formato, a PhD student, has also struggled to find accommodation. “My situation is still uncertain. I have a contact with a landlord that rents out the whole flat and I am looking for another person to share the place,” she told SCAN two weeks before arrivals weekend.

Formato added that “the support from the Students’ Union and more generally the University was great. They were quick and tried to help as much as they could.”

Anecdotal evidence from students forced to live off-campus last year suggests that it is a difficult experience, especially initially. Becca Blackburn, a Linguistics student from Fylde College who lived in Lancaster last year, said that travelling to campus during Freshers’ Week was “a total nightmare,” adding “we did get reimbursed slightly but not totally, and it made getting to campus very difficult.”

It seems that aside from the obvious stress and inconvenience of arranging alternative accommodation, the additional expense of travel, in particular during Freshers’ Week, is the major issue. Blackburn was otherwise positive about her experience, explaining that “you get a feel for the actual town and it’s less claustrophobic than being on campus 24/7.”

She added: “Overall I had a wicked Freshers’ Week, and I enjoyed my year off campus too, but it was just a lot more hectic as we were living out of cases for two weeks.”

Ellie Sutherland, another previous off-campus fresher from Fylde, praised her JCR Exec for providing taxis to involve them in Freshers’ Week events; “I still felt just as big a part of the college as those on campus,” she said.

Sutherland added that “although it may have been nice to have the experience of living on campus in first year, I actually loved living off campus. We were so close to everything that it meant no need to get taxis or buses before [or] after a night out. People often stayed at ours in order to avoid having to make the journey home.”

When questioned on accommodation procedures, University authorities have stressed that “Lancaster’s policy on accommodation is very clear and hasn’t changed,” despite similar issues occurring last year.

No students have been admitted through Clearing this year, which was the major cause of last year’s problems, but as of yet the University have not indicated that they will make significant changes to accommodation policy, although this is monitored as part of standard practice.

“It is very important to the University that students feel supported and informed about their accommodation, and we will continue to review the process for managing demand and the services we offer to assist students with finding suitable housing,” the University’s statement concluded.

Analysis: the University should learn from this.

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