Universities are outsourcing their accommodation services to save time and money, but their students are paying the price. Sydney Diack reports.
“Oh, we love our rat! We leave out food in the cupboards so he doesn’t have to walk too far.”
The answer was appalling and unsurprising in equal measure; the rat in question was wild rather than domestic, and its adoptive mothers were two uncharacteristically chipper residents of Dean House, one of the student accommodation blocks at Goldsmiths, University of London.
I was looking for students to talk to us about the state of their halls of residence, but these two were unperturbable. Satisfied as they were with the vermin, they directed me towards someone named Pablo. “Pablo loves to talk about the flooding,” said one of the rat mamas, waving as she disappeared up the stairs.
He did indeed. “The boiler exploded,” he said, “the water in the kitchen was inches high. It leaked through the floorboards and completely ruined the kitchen below. It was impossible to use the entire third floor. They took ages to fix it, and when it happened – this was really quite telling – there wasn’t an engineer in sight, just security guards running around with walkie-talkies.”
That wasn’t all: “My shower kept running cold, and they just gave me a key to another room. The girls living on the third floor couldn’t use their bathrooms, so they asked if they could borrow it instead of going to management. That’s how disorganised it was.
“Drug dealers congregate in front of the gates as there’s only one security camera that points straight at the front door of the building. There’s rat poison in the ceilings. One tried to climb in through the extractor fan in my bathroom. As of late it sounds like they’re multiplying.”
And, lastly, “the vacuum smells like faeces.”
I felt for Pablo. I spent a year in the same hall, and had seen two pigeons nest in someone’s bedroom with my own eyes. Despite paying high rents (£145 a week in this case), many students say they put up with what they claim is substandard accommodation. University of London Housing Services, which offers help and legal advice to students, maintains that disputes regarding deposits, the termination of tenancies and complaints about disrepair remain widespread.
When asked about the issues Dean House, a spokesperson for Goldsmiths stressed the importance of reporting: “Any pests should be reported so that we can inform pest control [and] any criminal activity should be reported to the police.” As for the boiler, steps were taken towards temporary compensation. “We recognise that a boiler leak led to significant disruption,” they said. “Once fixed, we offered a goodwill gesture of £20 to those affected.”
What else can students do? Certain blocks at Goldsmiths have been notorious for years, but students are up against something bigger now. Instead of renovating their housing, many universities outsource these services to large companies; indeed, several other Goldsmiths halls were outsourced in 2015 to Campus Living Villages (CLV) – a “global student accommodation provider with services in finance, design, development, project management and operation of student housing.” The corporation, which is run by an investment management firm domiciled in the Cayman Islands, operates in 20 universities across the UK and lets 45,000 beds across the world.
Responding to an investigation into CLV by The Leopard, the newspaper run by Goldsmiths’ student union, a spokesperson for Goldsmiths stated that the university “simply could not afford the tens of millions of pounds which would be needed to develop its own accommodation.”
This isn’t to say that students have no agency regarding housing disputes; In 2016, after sustained protests and rent strikes, students in CLV-run halls were offered a 35 per cent rent reduction – a collective rebate of over £650,000 – and the option to terminate their contracts without penalty. Groups at Goldsmiths continue to campaign for clean, safe and affordable housing through groups such as Goldsmiths Cut the Rent and Goldsmiths Housing Action.
Rent strikes were an effective form of action during the 2016-17 protests; since then, however, CLV have introduced clauses into their licensing agreements that make it more difficult for students to use their fees as a bargaining chip.
One such clause outlines that all students must provide a guarantor, something they were previously exempt from. If a student doesn’t pay, the guarantor must do so on their behalf. Moreover, “[CLV] is under no obligation to bring any claims against [the tenant] before bringing any action against the Guarantor.”
In other words: if you don’t pay, they will go after your guarantor – usually a family member – and don’t need to notify you before doing so.
Notably, the agreement that Goldsmiths students must sign to live in CLV-run rooms is not a contract but a license. Licenses, a spokesperson for not-for-profit advisory organisation Flat Justice said, are “very popular in London at the dodgy end of the rental market.”
“A licence is really for situations like a hostel or hotel, a live-in nanny or au-pair and ‘lodgers’ who share accommodation and communal areas with the landlord. Such an agreement should not be used where where all the circumstances appear the same as a normal flatshare.”
Essentially, a licensee will not benefit from rights they would be entitled to under a normal tenancy. Why should students have to provide a guarantor for such an agreement? And why are they not entitled to the same rights as renters?
“Students do get treated like second-class citizens under some agreements,” said Flat Justice. “There has been an interesting case recently which went all the way to the Supreme Court, in which the Tribunal decided that attic rooms which were too small for normal tenancies were OK for students because they apparently live more in the communal areas.”
Peter*, a postgraduate student at Goldsmiths, has felt the full force of CLV’s licensing agreement. A late applicant for accommodation, he moved quickly to ensure he got the last available room in Raymont Hall, priced at £942 per month (the average monthly price of student accommodation in London is £640). He was told that he would be able to vacate after a month as long as he found a replacement. A payment through October was processed, and he was assured help with finding someone new when the time came.
Six months later, Peter is still stuck in Raymont Hall. “They have me by the balls,” he said.
His problems started when finding a replacement proved a near-impossible task; few want to pay £300 above local prices live in a tiny room and share a kitchen with eight others. Furthermore, he claimed that CLV repeatedly prioritised turfing students to other halls over filling his spot.
“They say, ‘Don’t worry, students will arrive. You’re at the top of the waiting list.’ That was the first month I got there. Then it was, ‘Don’t worry, lots of students will arrive after Christmas.’ And then it was, ‘We sent them to more appropriate halls, but don’t worry, more will arrive in April.’ It wasn’t until I stopped paying that they listened.”
After allegedly cutting Peter’s heating and wifi – a consequence not outlined in his license (and usually illegal, according to Flat Justice) – CLV asked him to sign a payment plan agreeing to monthly payments until November 2019, totalling over £10,000.
“I was withholding November’s payment,” he said. “I told them I wouldn’t pay until we discussed my options. And they said, ‘Before we do that, we need to settle your fees.’ And I said ‘No, it’s the opposite, because once I give you the money you’re not going to let me leave.’”
It was at this point that CLV reminded Peter that they had his father’s details. “They also said that I could suffer consequences at Goldsmiths,” he claimed. “It sounded like I could get kicked out of uni, basically.”
When Goldsmiths were contacted about these claims – they are, after all, unable to intervene in disputes regarding CLV-run halls – they emphasised that this was impossible. “No student would face academic sanctions or be prevented from graduating because of accommodation debt,” a spokesperson said.
Bluff or no bluff, it was enough for Peter to fold. Over £5,600 later, and with a bathroom that “clogs every month,” he wishes CLV would have been more upfront. “If it’s harder to take a monthly payment, be honest,” he said. “They just profit from the lack of information.”
Responding to the claims made in this article, CLV said that if a student wishes to leave before the end of their license agreement the responsibility of managing the situation usually rests with the Goldsmiths’ accommodation services:”[Students] are usually referred back to the University Accommodation Team who will try and find a replacement,” a spokesperson said. “This team also tends to hold the waiting list.
“We offer payment plans to students who tell us that they require additional time to make their contractual rental payments. These payments are spread out evenly throughout the year to make them affordable. This plan is always completed in conjunction with the student.
“If, after multiple reminders, a student does not pay their rent, then internet restrictions may be imposed. We will never cut heating or other essential utilities.”
Students want the university to strongly consider bringing its accommodation providers back in-house. As Goldsmiths Housing Action have said: “Rather than outsourcing housing to private companies, Goldsmiths should increase the quality of its student housing, with increased student participation and, ideally, student co-operative ownership.”
I ran into the rat mamas last week, and thanked them for their help. “We’re really happy that someone’s finally listening to Pablo,” they grinned.
Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the identities of those involved. You can follow our Rogue Landlords series this week to find out more about the difficulties of renting in London. #RogueLandlords