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Following up from the cost of living investigation in the last issue, SCAN explores the cost of living specifically for students at Lancaster and what LUSU are doing to tackle it. In a poll conducted through our website, 76 percent of voters answered ‘yes’ – that the cost of living was something they regularly worry about.
A second year Economics student spoke to SCAN, claiming that his main concerns were over accommodation. “I do worry about the cost of living practically every day. I’m concerned with the rent prices, especially on campus, which adds pressure on everyday learning. I’m basically one of those people a bit screwed over by Student Finance (Wales) due to the specific family income boundaries and the fact that it is assumed that because my family income is at a certain level that they will partially finance some of my university education. This is absolutely not the case.
“I am funding my time at university entirely independently with no financial aid from my parents and I don’t want them to either.”
Another concern he had were prices on campus, which he believed were “not reasonable. The only accommodation I could afford in first year was Basic Standard, which I didn’t have a problem living in but I did have an issue with what I was paying for: near on £80 per week – including bills – for a tiny room with a rubbish bed, a sink and two kitchens shared between approximately 30 people. About 90 percent of my student finance maintenance loan goes to just paying rent, which means I need to find another way to pay the other expenses such as my bus pass, stationary, food, travel home and nights out.”
This, he said, “works out to be about £400 for the rest of the year, most of which comes in Summer term when the need for money is probably at its lowest compared to the other terms. I am able to do this thankfully from just my summer job which pays me enough to just about get through the year without getting in the way of my studies, with help from my savings. I work on a ferry and am very lucky to get such a job which not only pays well but provides lots of hours to work.”
Another student, a second year studying Politics and International Relations, was also concerned with the price of rent. “Without a shadow of a doubt rent is the most difficult aspect of living to cover financially. As rents both on and off campus are, I would say, dis-proportionally high and leave little from my student loan. Although the loan does cover the rent, if I relied solely on what I calculated at the start of the year then I would have somewhere in the region of £20 a week to live off. That obviously is barely enough for food let alone a social life.”
This student also said that the high cost of living – particularly accommodation costs – require them to get a part-time job. “I got a relatively well paying job on campus in the Conference Centre working evenings and weekends,” they said. “Although this gave me financial security and a disposable income, it has affected my studies due to the high number of shifts required to do the job. As such I have had to ask for drastically reduced hours for the rest of my time there to concentrate on my studies, but this puts me at risk of losing my financial security again and means I have to budget extremely well.”
Speaking to SCAN, LUSU Councillor Lizzie Houghton confirmed these students’ concerns. “I think in some situations on campus, the amount you’re paying for what you’re getting is completely topsy turvy.” Talking about the Bowland Annexe Houghton said, “to be paying so much a week to be sharing a kitchen with 20 other people is just ridiculous.” She believes students are putting up with poor accommodation and living conditions simply because it’s their first time away from home: “most students don’t actually know what a competitive rent is and what you can expect from that rent. There’s also this thing of ‘oh well halls are expensive and we just have to live with that’ but actually you don’t necessarily just have to live with that.”
Houghton suggests it’s the rent agreement that Lancaster has with UPP which is the problem: “As much as UPP may say it’s here for the students it’s not. Maybe that’s something that in the university’s long term plan it needs to consider – whether it’s going to continue with private providers or it’s just going to focus on offering accommodation by itself.” However, she admits that it is obviously not a quick fix.
LUSU President Joel Pullan confirmed that accommodation was the most significant drain on students’ living expenditure: “Based on feedback LUSU have been getting and based on Lancaster’s ‘Living Costs and Budgeting 2013-14’ grid, rent is definitely the most expensive living cost and it’s the one we hear most often that students are struggling with.” As part of the contract Lancaster has with the private accommodation provider UPP, on-campus is set to increase annually with Retail Price Index inflation. However, Pullan admits “there are so many more costs associated with living beyond rent, that actually I think we should take it as whole and try and alleviate things where possible and see if we can minimise costs in some places that could offset on the rent, for example.”
In order to address this issue, LUSU have been working on a ‘Cost of Living’ campaign, a motion which will be addressed Thursday, Week 2, at the next Union Council. The motion focuses specifically on three areas of cost of living: accommodation, bus passes and hidden course costs.
In terms of accommodation Pullan said LUSU will be actively opposing and working with UPP to change the rent setting process.
He admits “that’s going to be difficult but actually there are things we can do to minimise the overall burden on students by making sure that there’s a good mix of high quality accommodation both on and off campus, pitched at different price levels as well so not everything on campus should be over £120.
“It’s all about making sure we’ve got the even spread of accommodation so that it’s the most affordable for all of our students. Because some of our students will be willing and able to pay the high rate rents, but there’s a lot of students who aren’t.”
The second part of the motion is the issue of the high cost of bus passes, which VP (Welfare and Community) Tom Fox is currently working on. Pullan said that the one thing LUSU are fairly certain of is that the current bus pass system will be moving to an electronic one. This means if students lose their cards, they will be able to get it wiped and get a new one replaced – for hopefully only a few pounds – rather than having to buy a completely new bus pass. He said “that’s a really big step in making sure students save a bit of money travelling.” He also said “we’re looking into whether student bus passes can be subsidised through things like parking permit money to try and bring the cost down and try and make people think a bit more green.”
The final part of the motion is the hidden course costs. LUSU are pushing for the course costs to be more transparent on Lancaster’s prospectuses. Pullan claimed “the University are actually doing quite a lot of work at the moment looking at their printed materials and making sure that they align with what the courses they are going to be teaching actually are.” He said “as part of that I think it should say what the costs associated with those courses are going to be.” Whilst Pullan said it is generally the arts courses with the hidden course costs, he admits that LUSU need to do a bit more consultation with students to find out which courses are more expensive than others.
Recently, Pullan has been lobbying in the Finance and General Purposes Committee, the University management advisory group and the University Council on the cost of living, and he believes that “we are finally making positive steps forward. The University are going to be bringing an accommodation strategy paper to a future University Council, where they are outlining where they’re going on accommodation and we can really have a say then on the price of rent, what we think should be refurbished, what we think is a good level of accommodation and making sure that the student voice is heard and that these concerns around the cost of living are taken seriously.”
Overall, he agreed that accommodation was the longest – and probably hardest – issue and “it will require next year’s Full Time Officer team to take on as well. But the joy of having policies is that it lasts five years so hopefully we’ll get that momentum rolling on throughout the years.”