With anger at the accommodation situation in St Andrews rising throughout this year, the flat hunt send many into crisis mode. Students queued down the street just to view a single flat, rejection was far more likely than success and many began to fear that they would never find a place to live.
It was in the context of the mounting fear that Bernie Munro – a first year student seeking private accommodation for the first time – began a petition to the University to get some answers on accommodation. The Saint sat down with him to ask how this idea came about and what he hoped it would achieve.[pullquote]Mr Munro said that the petition was “a cry for reassurance”[/pullquote]
“It got to a point where me and my friends had been rejected again from a flat and a few of my other friends came in and said they had been rejected from four flats in one day,” he said. “Everyone was very down and raging about it, it’s all anyone had been talking about for a fortnight. So we thought, it’s about time that instead of just sitting moaning about it we actually try to get something done about it.”
He decided that a petition would be the best thing to do, saying “we didn’t know if anything was actually getting sorted and there was a lot of ambiguity. We just wanted answers. We had been to the ASC before, asking questions, and we weren’t getting any clarity, so we thought we’d just hit hard and go straight into a petition.”
With all of the uncertainty surrounding accommodation at the moment, Mr Munro said that the petition was “a cry for reassurance.”
“And I think the number of people who have shared it shows that this is a concern for a substantial amount of the student population,” he continued. The petition on change.org had 1,406 signatures at the time of writing.
When asked what he hoped the petition would achieve, Mr Munro was adamant that he is realist. “Some people expected that I thought someone was going to wave a magic wand and drop a hall out of thin air and slash the prices of accommodation and up the bursaries by 1000 per cent and save the world and all the rest of it,” he said.
“I’m not that naïve. I know for a fact that with a petition like that, nine times out of 10, nothing will come of it. But what I really aimed for, and what has happened, is that it’s turned into this big dialogue. It’s got people talking about the problem. And instead of just moaning about it people are actually doing something.”
He mentioned the recent housing protest – which was not organised by him – as another example of students expressing their discontent and doing something active to pressure the University into taking quicker action.
“If people don’t come forward and say we’re worried, we need something done about this, the University aren’t going to see the problem. But if they see on an objective level, with numbers, that there are X amount of people who are worried about this, then it puts more pressure on them to do something about it.”[pullquote]A lot of the problem is we just need reassurance. People need a clear cut guide saying we recognise this is an issue, this is what we’re going to do about it.[/pullquote]
For Mr Munro, the main problem which the petition aims to address is the lack of openness from the University about what is really going on in terms of accommodation. “The system’s not transparent enough,” he said, adding that “there just doesn’t seem to be enough space for everyone.”
“I had a friend who went to the accommodation services and asked them, what’s the likelihood of me getting back in to halls? And they couldn’t tell her anything.”
“A lot of the problem is we just need reassurance. People need a clear cut guide saying we recognise this is an issue, this is what we’re going to do about it.”
He called for a “draft plan saying this is what we plan to do over the next 10 years. This is exactly the amount of students we’re going to let in and this is exactly the amount of accommodation we’re going to have for them.”
Mr Munro pointed to the changes to the accommodation bursary system as a further cause for concern. He himself considered re-applying for halls. “But then,” he said, “there was the question of, if I get back into my hall, am I still going to be able to pay for it? This year I’ve been fortunate enough to get a bursary and that’s been great. Without the bursary, I wouldn’t be living in halls.
“Although the amount given in the bursaries has increased, the numbers given out have been cut. And for people like me that’s a panic. I’m thinking, hopefully they will allow me that bursary, but what if I don’t get it?”
“Basically, if I don’t find a place to stay here I have to move back home. I could commute and it’s not the end of the world. But I don’t have a bed at home. My parents downsized because they assumed I’d find a place to stay. So I’d be on the couch.”
As Mr Munro pointed out, clearly this would not even be an option for most students.
Illustrating the panic which drove him to start the petition, he spoke about the madness he and his friends had faced as first years trying to navigate the St Andrews rental market, Mr Munro said that “someone actually shoved our group of friends out of the letting agency for a flat.”
He hopes the petition will have some effect, he understands that nothing will happen overnight. “I know that I can petition and campaign until I’m blue in the face and nothing could change by the end of this year, possibly even by the time I leave,” he said. “But it’s more about getting people talking about it and getting people thinking and petitioning for different solutions. I’ve started the ball rolling with the petition but this means other people can get on board and start thinking of a solution.
“There are a lot of great minds in this place, we’re all here for a reason. Someone’s going to have ideas. It’s all about getting people to come forward and get involved with that dialogue rather than just moaning about it. Because just moaning about it will only perpetuate the problem.”