Accommodation at Lancaster University: the bigger picture

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In the past decade, Lancaster University has seen a lot of improvements made to its buildings, particularly the campus accommodation. With the choice of accommodation types now including the newly-coined ‘upgraded’ and ‘superior’ standards of room, there are eleven different classifications across the colleges for students, including family flats. Accommodation on campus has seen rent rises on a regular basis, claimed to be in line with inflation & utility costs. Comparing accommodation over a long range is not so easy as other factors are at play on top of inflation, including renovations & older methods e.g. there used to be a charge for network access in rooms, in 2006 this was £66/yr. Hilary Simmons, the Head of Colleges and Student Experience, said, “accommodation is not run on a profit making basis, any money made on the accommodation is invested back into it.” Recent hikes are being blamed rises in energy prices & larger scale refurbishment.

In recent years the University has made greater distinctions between the types and conditions of accommodation on offer at Lancaster, as is evidenced by the findings of the Accommodation Cost Survey 2009-2010 by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Unipol, a nationwide charity for student accommodation. The study, which look at rents for both institutions and the private sector, reveals data indicative of higher-than-average increases in rent at Lancaster for some of the newer and more popular accommodation, whilst rents for older rooms, such as Basic Standard types, saw reductions. In 2010, Basic Standard accommodation rent dropped from £70.00 to £68.95 per week.

Though the University claims that the rents “change to that of other accommodation at that standard”, there are some students who are concerned about the potential risk of eradicating the affordable flats. Bowland College alone has retained any Basic Standard rooms at the lowest tariff. Many students accept the notion of and the rationale behind refurbishments taking place, but object to the resultant hike in their rent.

The University has worked with University Partnerships Programme (UPP) to facilitate the accommodation refurbishments and new-builds. To ensure the costs footed by UPP were covered after the campus townhouses were built, the deal was renegotiated to include an additional 1.5% to the rental increase for each academic year from 2008/09 to 2013/14 on top of inflation. UPP is responsible for maintaining and refurbishing all of its residence areas, and the University is responsible for its accommodation. The University has refurbished Graduate College, Bowland Main, Slaidburn House, Furness Perimeter, and Pendle/Grizedale Houses 2-15.  During this time the University has been putting £2M a year into refurbishing residences. Rents have increased by an additional £5 to £7 per week for the rooms following refurbishment that the University is responsible for.  But the real price increase can be significant when including the inflation rate.

Similar actions have caused dismay at other universities. At York University, for example, comparable UPP-accommodation has been criticised by students as it has a higher rent than university-managed accommodation. Here in Lancaster, the townhouses built and paid for by UPP are praised for following an eco-model, and have won crime-prevention awards. Under the contract with UPP, the University is obliged to meet the target-modelled rental income each year. UPP is responsible for maintaining and refurbishing the buildings and there is a monitoring regime to ensure that this is done to an adequate standard throughout the life of the buildings.  UPP has a rolling maintenance programme and each summer carries out major works such as the replacement of kitchens, carpets and mattresses. However, within this partnership, one of the four objectives was to ensure affordability; whether this objective is being achieved is undeniably a major source of contention among residents. The previous vice-chancellor, Paul Wellings, was one of those keen to support collaboration with UPP and cited the partnership as a key step in Lancaster University’s growth strategy. Although UPP rooms are more expensive, the ultimate reason why Lancaster works with UPP is outlined by Mark Swindlehurst, the Head of Facilities:

“It allows us to release our own financial resources to invest it into other academic facilities”. When the agreement with UPP comes after 48 years, the buildings will revert to the University.

The National Student Housing Survey (NSHS) showed that condition and quality of rooms is very important to students, with 83% saying it was very important. 70% of students rated Lancaster University accommodation good value for money, compared to 54% nationally. The Survey’s website shows the extent of Lancaster University’s accommodation acclamation, with Fylde College Residences doing particularly well for ‘Best Learning Environment’ and ‘Best Individual Accommodation’.

 

However, these successes do not present the full picture of students’ views and reactions to all the work put into bettering their residences. Pendle and Grizedale Colleges had some refurbishments completed over the summer and the student reaction from second and third years has been mixed. Kitchens in particular have been well-praised (except for the odd minor quibble, such as that the tables are too small), but the views on the bedroom improvements seem in general to be more negative. Many students see them as having been “a rushed job”, with patchy wall painting, wonky sockets and more of a homogenous feel with less individuality or college personality. Facilities that are missed by some students include wall-mirrors and padded chairs, whilst some are unhappy that the older-style wardrobes and desks remain in some rooms. The general consensus appears to be that renovation work is not worth doing if some parts have to be rushed to get it done in time.

 

From the University’s side, assurances have been made that care is taken to monitor the rents of other providers to ensure that they remain competitive and provide the best value for money:

 

“We consistently monitor the rents of our peer institutions and the off-campus housing market to make sure we are not being unrealistic.”

 

The University and its students arguably have a mutual vested interest in its handling of campus rent tariffs, as competitive pricing reduces the likelihood of students flocking to the city centre, whereupon private landlords would be afforded a greater licence to charge over the odds with little consequence. There are certainly positives to be seen on a national scale, as the 2012 Student Value for Money Report, compiled by insurance company Simple Landlords Insurance, shows Lancaster was ranked fifth in the UK, although this does factor academic reputation, too.

 

Head of Colleges and Student Experience Hilary Simmons, when asked whether the University sees a potential problem for the collegiate system – whether colleges are, as proposed by student Chris Witter at the recent LUSU General Meeting, moving towards reputations associated with social class based on accommodation affordability rather than an academic or a sporting ethos, or not – said the following:

 

“We do still offer a range of accommodation on campus and find that the demand broadly matches the supply. The colleges are an integral part of the Lancaster experience whose success and vibrancy can be directly attributed to the students and staff that get involved in college life.”

 

Students with disabilities, for whom adaptations or specific facilities may be difficult to acquire in off-campus properties, must often accept the costs associated with living in campus residences. The University has made assurances that all students are treated equally, and specialist services are in place to provide help and advice for those in need of funding and disabilities services. The University also helps all students through the decision making process with the joint University-LUSU accommodation talks each November.

 

As for future accommodation tariffs: these will be set by a committee meeting further ahead in the academic year. Uniquely, this year saw a deficit in the number of students taking up residence in rooms on campus. But the long-term future for Lancaster is likely to see an increase in undergraduates and the University will either need more on-campus accommodation or more in town – or, realistically, more of both. This would suggest that the furore over accommodation style and affordability will not abate any time soon

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