Two weeks ago I reported for this newspaper on the case of Hannah Klimas, whom the University attempted to charge an extra 1,000 pounds for her bad luck after it placed her in an en-suite room it hadn’t told anyone about. The University’s audacity was shocking, and the case was rightly met with outrage. But the real outrage is that no one was surprised.
The accommodation situation in St Andrews is nightmarish – and everyone knows it. Every year, without fail, students struggle to find somewhere to live. Too often they end up with a room in Leuchars or Strathkinness because they didn’t queue outside an estate agent at 7am on a freezing February morning or because the University failed to allocate them a room.
Often it’s because the University just can’t get its numbers right. In March 2012, an emergency housing meeting had to be convened in Parliament Hall because so many returning students were rejected from halls of residence. And yet the following October the University found itself with 300 rooms standing empty – so many that all of Fife Park’s residents were moved into more comfortable halls after Christmas.
This year, some freshers have been placed for the first semester in Eden Court, normally a postgraduate residence. Others, like Hannah, have been squeezed into extra rooms wherever there is space. It is no far cry from a few years ago when hall libraries were converted into dormitories with bunk beds because the University greedily accepted more students than it had space for.
But the University is not solely to blame. The problems with halls of residence would be much more tolerable if St Andrews had anything like a normal housing market. Unfortunately, the nature of the town means we have little and limited choice when it comes to student properties – hence the mad scramble for leases early in the second semester.
The flaws are deliberately exacerbated, however, by Fife Council. In 2011 it imposed a cap on HMO licences, restricting the number of new properties that could be used to house groups of students in the town centre. In recent days some councillors have backed proposals to widen the area covered by the cap, which would push students even farther afield.
Fife Council also rejected joint plans last year by the University and a private company to build more student flats near East Sands. At the time the Council claimed there was “no obvious need for student accommodation in St Andrews,” despite its own planning officers recommending the project for approval. The flats would have housed 150 more students at a “substantially cheaper” cost.
What can be done? First, the University must see sense and reduce demand by accepting fewer students each September. This will alleviate pressure until capacity can be increased. The University of course wants to educate as many new minds as possible but this should not come at the expense of the existing student body.
Next, the Union needs to properly fulfill its role and stand up for the student body by working to persuade Fife Council that the HMO moratorium is unreasonable. For an issue decried so strongly as “social engineering against students” and a “deliberate step to segregate students and the community” by our student leaders in 2011, there has been disappointingly little effort since. Freddie Fforde largely ignored the issue during his time in office and it was barely mentioned by candidates in the recent election. It is time our student representatives put some serious thought into solving our accommodation problems.
Fife Council needs to recognise that students constitute around half of the town’s population and their needs cannot be ignored. When the HMO ban was instituted, one councillor was reported as saying: “We do need students, but we need real people too.” This attitude must end. A report earlier this year measured the student impact in St Andrews at 36 million pounds a year, supporting 1,400 jobs. That is hardly negligible. The best way for the Council to show an improvement in its attitude would be to lift the HMO ban and then seriously consider allowing new housing to be built. Reasonable proposals for affordable student residences have been put forward and rejected out of hand. Our elected officials must listen to us and reconsider.
The only permanent solution is to build more dedicated student accommodation. If the University wants to continue to recruit ever more students then it must set aside funds for another hall of residence, or an expansion of DRA and the Fife Park Apartments. The future of the Fife Park Houses, a subject of much concern, must also be assured. The Union can help here, too, by pressing the University for guarantees.
St Andrews’ accommodation problems are daunting, but they are not insurmountable. Hannah Klimas was just the latest casualty of a broken system that has harmed us for too long. It is time everyone started working to fix it.