|We all know how much our degrees cost us, but what about our expenses besides tuition, and how might they impact our experience at St Andrews?|
The cost of living in St Andrews is a subject surrounded with rumour and confusion. It is quite common to hear students proclaim the local Tesco to be the second most expensive in the UK, but Tesco’s employees reject this claim, calling it ‘unfounded’. Perhaps even more perplexingly official estimates of the cost of living for students in St Andrews vary wildly. In the joint RBS-NatWest student living index in 2005, St Andrews was among the bottom of the barrel in terms of affordability. In 2006 however, the same report ranked St Andrews 4th in the UK, and perplexingly enough, cited the relatively low cost of living as a key reason for this ranking. In more recent editions of the report, only the top 25 most affordable schools are named, and since 2006, St Andrews has not shown up once, though it has never since been named as the least affordable university, either.
Whatever the figures say, the student reaction to living costs are very mixed. Many students say they are comfortable with what they are currently spending, or express mild complaints with the lack of options but voice no significant concerns. A roughly equal number, however, feel very strongly that the cost of living is far too high. “You think you can make it on fifty pounds a week, but you rarely can. It’s more like seventy or eighty pounds. It’s frustrating,” I am told. Others point out how they feel genuinely trapped by the lack of options: “Halls are expensive, private accommodation is expensive, you just don’t have a choice. And because some students are willing to pay £500 or more for a flat, landlords keep their prices high.” It seems that diverse make up of the student population, in many cases a unique asset of St Andrews, and in this case also serves to make circumstances difficult for those on tighter budgets.
What is clear, however, is that the cost of living in St Andrews is well above the national average. Take rent for example; according to a report by our Student Union, the average weekly rent for students is £80, 33% above the national average of £60. In part, the high costs of rent have been the result of the University’s inability to provide substantial affordable housing to its students – forcing them to turn to the open market, and allowing housing prices to rise in response to a student body with few cheaper alternatives. In 2008, it was reported that the university only had 726 ‘affordable’ beds available in halls of residence, with 230 reserved for post-graduates, leaving only 496 such beds for undergraduates. In fact, using figures provided on the University website, we see that once you deduct the price of food from catered accommodation (which varies, but has been generously calculated to be £1422 per student), only 592 spaces in the university’s main halls cost below £80: Those at Fife Park Houses, Albany Park, and the two shared rooms in available in Andrew Melville Hall. All the other beds in hall cost even more than the town’s £80 average weekly rent. In fact, a 2010 report for the Royal Society of Chemistry reveals that rent for over 70% of ‘university-owned accommodation’ at St Andrews costs over £120 a week.
Over the past fifteen years, it seems that landlords have realised the value of having a captive student population, as private rental costs have risen dramatically. Moreover having a very variegated student population allows for monthly rental costs to range wildly – from the rare flat under £200 all the way to rents over £800. With certain segments of the student population always willing to pay the higher rents for a property with the right furnishings, in the right place, landlords are driven to compete for this lucrative market segment and neglect those looking for cheaper rents and more basic properties. Not only does this have the effect of helping push up overall rents, but it means that the affordable properties that are available are often in the bottom of the barrel. It’s rare to find a flat for £260 a month – around the UK average rent of £60 per week – and when they are available, they are rarely well kept. Many students in such accommodation report poorly insulated houses, riddled with mould, damp, peeling paint, damaged carpet, broken appliances, furniture on its last legs and negligent landlords – in other words a property well below ‘average’ quality. Meanwhile, leases which frequently run for the 12 month periods see many students paying to let an unused flat, and often legally barred from subletting, further driving up their costs.
Not all student money woes are the result of scarce accommodation and enterprising landlords, however. Food, books and our social lives consume a significant amount of our budget, and more than we may suspect. In the UK, the average student will spend £21.48 on their weekly supermarket shop, and another £15.22 on eating out. Meanwhile, both in our homes and out at pubs, clubs and bars, we tend to spend a weekly average of £28.06 on alcohol. Other figures include a weekly average of £14.29 on cigarettes, £9.04 on books and course materials, and £4.03 on laundry and dry-cleaning (source: ukstudentlife.com). Many signs, however, indicate that these costs are even higher in St Andrews. For example, on many student advice forums, the average weekly amount spent on groceries reported by St Andrews students hovers around £30. If, as many students suspect, the price difference is the result of the inflated cost of living in St Andrews, then extrapolating from this, the average student in St Andrews would spend around £21.66 on eating out, and £39.93 on alcohol. After all, St Andrews does lack the usual three quid curry houses and cheap off-licenses that help bring down the costs of student living in other cities.
This picture is made worse by rising prices. In 2008, ukstudentlife.com calculated that the average student energy bill came to about £58. While prices vary substantially in St Andrews, these days, for a household of four, energy bills are reported to reach around £70-£80 a month – an increase which can get costly over time. Similarly transportation and food costs have risen in kind. Overall, the cost of living for students has risen substantially, with the average cost of living rising by 5% per year, since 2004. Currently, for the UK, prfire.co.uk estimates that the average student will spend £752 per month, or £9,541 per year. Given that both our accommodation costs and the estimated costs of our groceries in St Andrews are around a third higher, it’s quite likely that in St Andrews, this figure is much higher as well. Nonetheless, St Andrews does have certain advantages over other student towns and cities. Notably, paying for transportation is rarely necessary, and no venues regularly charge for entry.
Meanwhile, while the difficult economic situation continues, it’s reported by NatWest that fewer students are receiving support from home, with 1 in 4 students receiving less support in 2010 than in 2009, and nearly 50% of students currently receiving no support from home at all. To cope, around 45% of St Andrews students are reported to work part time (source: the completeuniversityguide.co.uk). But while the fact that nearly half of us are juggling degrees and a part time job is a testament to our resiliency and our work ethic, the costs of having to work may have a significant impact upon our time at St Andrews. According to The Guardian, around 58% of those who work part time achieve upper-second or first class degrees, compared to 71% of those who do not work. At the end of the day this means that the cost of living is not simply a minor challenge to student’s lives, but one that can seriously impact upon the quality of education they receive. Ultimately, for St Andrews to maintain its reputation as a world-class university, it may need to confront some difficult challenges in dealing with the cost of living for the student body.