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University students ‘cheated’ by rise in unfinished housing

Destiny, student at Portsmouth

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Destiny has been stuck in temporary accommodation after her student block was not completed on time

Destiny is feeling cheated and angry.

She is one of about 250 students at the University of Portsmouth left in the lurch when their accommodation was not finished in time for the new term.

Instead of a glossy new room, she has been stuck temporarily in a hotel, away from other students – and with no cooking facilities she’s had to live on take-away food for nearly three weeks.

“I’ve been feeling really anxious. I can’t concentrate on my studies,” says the politics student.

There are 22 private student blocks across the UK that have been delayed this term – almost a third of those being built, according to student housing charity Unipol.

Lack of scrutiny?

Eva Crossan Jory, of the National Union of Students, says she is “extremely concerned at the significant rise” in students being disrupted.

But the University of Portsmouth is also angry – because even though there might be an assumption that it has some link to the unfinished student flats, these are private developments over which the university has no control.

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Stanhope House for students in Portsmouth is still not ready for students to move in

The university’s vice-chancellor, Graham Galbraith, says there is a serious lack of scrutiny about how the private student accommodation system operates.

“At the end of the day, those housing providers know that the universities will step in. So where does the responsibility for this lie? Because they seem to be able to walk away,” he says.

Anyone going through university towns and cities will have seen new blocks of student flats mushrooming skywards.

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Bilgesu says she is having to stay in a hotel room away from students and without access to wi-fi

These are often private investments, but the cash fuelling this building boom is public money – in the form of the maintenance loans to cover students’ living costs.

Prof Galbraith says it seems extraordinary that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money should go into these private rental projects with so little accountability.

“There is no real control,” he says, and he warns that new blocks can open without even a “conversation” with the university.

He also wants better consumer protection for students signing housing contracts, arguing that some “arrangements are incredibly one-sided”.

Unregulated

This autumn there have been reports of unfinished flats in locations from Portsmouth to Swansea, Lincoln to Liverpool. In Bristol, delays have meant students being put up temporarily in Wales.

But it’s not clear who might intervene.

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Students were expecting to move into this building in Portsmouth for the new term

Universities UK says its code of conduct applies only to university-owned housing – which means any private student developments will not be covered.

The higher-education regulator, the Office for Students, says it “doesn’t have powers to regulate private accommodation providers”.

Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan asked a parliamentary question about “safeguards for students affected by properties not being built in time”.

But universities minister Chris Skidmore said universities were autonomous and that “government plays no direct role in the provision of student residential accommodation”.

First day, no accommodation

In Portsmouth, Bilgesu is another student unable to move into the new Stanhope House student building.

She is in a hotel with no free wi-fi, where she feels unable to get on with her degree course and isolated from student life.

“It’s just so far away from the student environment,” says the biomedical science student.

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Alex, an overseas student, found out that he had no accommodation when he was on his way to the UK

Alex, an international student from the Netherlands, found out about the accommodation not being ready just as he was travelling to the UK.

He was coming to a new country and a new city for the first time – and had nowhere to go, so booked himself into a hotel at his own expense.

“I didn’t know anything about this city, I couldn’t make any friends. It was hard for the first week,” says Alex, who was then found a room by the university.

He says he was even more taken aback when “on the day they told people they can’t move in, they were asking for money from them”.

“I feel like students are really easy to exploit. I just came here expecting the building to be ready, I’m trusting what I saw on the website.”

Compensation

Destiny says the disruption has meant she can’t get the term started. “I can’t organise my books. It’s affecting my studies,” she says.

The students are unimpressed by a compensation offer of £150 – less than they are still being charged for a week’s rent.

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Student union president Helena Schofield says starting university is stressful enough without problems over housing

The students’ union and university officials have been trying to help students who have found themselves unable to move in.

Union president Helena Schofield says the link between housing and students’ mental health is underestimated.

Starting at university can be an emotional time – and such uncertainty about accommodation, and being away from other students, can only add to the stress.

Unreserved apologies

The private housing company behind Stanhope House, Prime Student Living, says it has “unreservedly apologised to students”.

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The University of Portsmouth has been trying to help students caught out by the non-completion of accommodation

But it blames its building contractor for a lack of advance warning of the failure to open on time and says finding alternative accommodation was made an “immediate priority”.

The spokesman said the company was “disappointed to hear that the university does not consider that we have communicated effectively to them”.

“We believe that we have done everything possible to mitigate the impact for those affected in the time available,” said the Prime Student Living spokesman.

“We will continue to do all we can to get students into the building as an urgent priority.”


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