In promotional material aimed at prospective students, the University of St Andrews sells itself as a unique educational experience, highlighting its residential system as a cornerstone of student life in our town. Its unnecessarily slapdash approach to student accommodation this year, however, looks set to blemish the experience for many.
On the accommodation section of its website, the University invites prospective students to make real their dreams of “playing pianos in oak panelled libraries” and “donning gowns for dinner” in centuries-old dining halls. As prices for catered residences this year start at £5,359 and climb to an eye-watering £7,423, making dreams come true is something that incoming students will feel well within their rights to demand.
News, then, that many will find themselves crammed three to a room, ousted to postgraduate halls and, in some cases, bunked in repurposed common rooms and study areas, must have come as something of a smack in the face to freshers entertaining such romantic visions as they prepare for life in St Andrews.
Student housing has long been something of a hot-button issue in St Andrews: between periodic hall redevelopments, HMO moratoriums and the general lack of new builds around the town centre, accommodation is at a premium, and has been for some time. Students who placed a strong degree of trust in the University when submitting their applications to the arcane lottery that is the hall allocation ballot, have been poorly repaid.
There was no box to check this year to confirm or deny interest in three- or four-bed dorms, or a drop-down list offering a preference for ‘postgraduate residence’; the website itself and all related documents give no indication that a room will ever be shared by more than two people. Few, I imagine, would have selected those options even if there had been.
And yet, over 70 students arrived to halls last week to find themselves in such clearly lacklustre
Accommodation Services (SAS) know this better than anyone – it ensures that halls in St Andrews typically operate at around 100 per cent capacity, and allows the University to charge what are among the highest accommodation fees in the country.
That SAS should be caught so off-guard by the accommodation shortfall this year (caused in part by the demolition of Fife Park Apartments) that such off-the-cuff, improvisational measures were necessary should come as something of a surprise. All the more surprising given that the University has been aware of both the timeframe for Fife Park’s regeneration and the projected numbers of incoming students for quite some time.
Either someone, somewhere, made a serious miscalculation, or a decision was made in advance to pack as many paying students as legally possible into the limited space available, with little apparent thought for their residential experience.
It is unlikely that anyone not directly involved in the decision- making process will ever be able to say for certain what really happened. But what is clear is that students who placed a significant amount of trust in arrangements anyway, having been left with no realistic option other than make the best of it.
Similarly, their neighbours have been denied access to the social areas that are at the heart of
many first-years’ social lives.
To apply for student accommodation at St Andrews is to acknowledge that sheer chance will play a significant role in determining your eventual placement. But students paying thousands of pounds a year for rooms (many, let’s not forget, lured to the University by romantic visions of those oak-panelled rooms mentioned above) deserve better than to be packed into crowded, hastily-converted common areas, like the victims of some natural disaster.
By sending others off to postgraduate halls, the University has also shown little regard for the requirements of postgraduate students who were given no say in the matter and now find themselves the close neighbours of dozens of boisterous young freshers.
There’s a very good reason that we have halls exclusively for postgraduate students in St Andrews: their social – and nocturnal – habits tend to vary quite wildly from those of first-years. Placing the two groups together under one roof isn’t fair for either, and is a recipe for
frustration and tension later in the year when deadlines begin to loom.
Will those who find themselves in this situation find a way to make the best of it? Most likely, they will. These are students we’re talking about after all. But no-one paying thousands of pounds for a service of any kind should reasonably expect to face compromise on this sort of scale.
For many, undertaking a degree is one of the most expensive investments they will ever make; yet there is little evidence that the University has done anything to prioritise the residential experience of those who are paying it a small fortune to do so.
Rising tuition fees have turned tertiary education for many from a right into a serious investment. It’s high time the University reflected that in the service it provides to all paying students