Accommodation is persistently one of the most confusing, complex and often stressful issues that St Andrews students face. Therefore, the Students’ Association Accommodation Officer, Alexandre Ciric, arguably has one of the hardest jobs of our volunteer student representatives.
As part of his, along with Naomi Edwards’, the Accommodation advocate and the Accommodation Sub Committee’s, efforts to improve students’ access to information about housing, a major talk to teach students “How To Rent” was held this month (10 November), the sub-committee has held drop-in sessions in all student halls and has released a revamped, easier read to guide on how to deal with accommodation in St Andrews.
These new initiatives mark a renewed approach to concerns surrounding accommodation in St Andrews, as Mr Ciric, who was previously the Member for University Accommodation says. “What we did last year was we went into halls, [Ms Edwards] spoke for 15 minutes, giving a very dense talk, talking about contracts and deposit schemes, things that a first year does not necessarily need to know when they first think ‘I need a house.’”
Mr Ciric explained that he felt this caused some problems for the team.
“Not every hall had great attendance, not a lot of people asked questions, we didn’t have the guides to give out that we do now.”
As a result, both Mr Ciric and Ms Edwards agreed that their approach needed “tweaking.”
“We ended up, after some brainstorming, saying ‘ok, how about we do one big talk in the Union?’ Anyone can come, then we’ll follow that up in halls with these drop-in sessions where residents can come and ask us questions and it will be more informal,” Mr Ciric said.
“I think that’s a lot more conducive to people asking questions than [Ms Edwards] throwing all this jargon at them and then me trying to say ‘it’s going to be ok guys, don’t worry’,” he added.
The events held by the Accommodation team so far this year have been enormously successful.
Over 120 people were in attendance at the How to Rent talk. This is a stark comparison with the team’s most successful event last year, which only 15 people attended.
“People want information about housing, and what the SRC subcommittee is trying to do at the moment, at this time of the year, is provide that information from a student’s perspective,” Mr Ciric explained.
“What we sort of focused on in the talk was ‘this is what the landscape is like’. We said there are letting agencies, private landlords, explained things like ‘this is where you find property lists from the letting agencies, this is where you go and find a private landlord’.”
The team are pushing for students to use online services like Zoopla and the St Andrews Student Pad more.
They also provided information on what to consider when deciding to become a commuter student, presenting the advantages and disadvantages.
“Our pitch in general, is based on a student going in clueless and then build up from there,” explained Mr Ciric.
The talk itself was designed to cover most major concerns and questions over housing, with the drop in sessions providing an opportunity for people to put forward more specific queries.
“At some of these drop in sessions, people have come up to me saying anything from ‘how do you start?’ to ‘one of our flatmates last year had a health issue, how does this affect our likelihood of getting a house?’
“I try to provide as honest answers as I can, people come to us with a really wide background and varying amounts of knowledge about how to get a house,” Mr Ciric said.
In giving people advice, Mr Ciric says he will often ask if they know what the first step for getting accommodation is. Most students who are trying to secure private accommodation for the first time cannot tell him.
If this is the case, he starts his advice with the basics. The first piece of advice he gives is to decide who you want to live with early on.
“My favourite spiel to give is that you can live in the nicest house in town but if you hate your flatmates, you’re going to have a terrible experience,” he said.
“Secondly I’ll say ‘go and ask your warden right now for a reference’, because that is something that they can give to you in five minutes.
According to Mr Ciric, the team always try to give students concrete pieces of advice which they can take action on immediately.
“It is daunting, and we’re there to help students navigate, what is, arguably, a very nuanced landscape,” he said. Mr Ciric also told The Saint that many students often struggle with the legal language that they encounter in the process of signing a lease and securing private accommodation.
“Students should absolutely go to [Ms Edwards] if they ever just aren’t comfortable signing an agreement,” he said.
He also added that “very few contracts are malicious, but the Union offers a lot of support if you need it.”
Mr Ciric also outlined how the team deals with the subject of private landlords at their talks, a topic that is of particular concern to many students following allegations earlier this year that some private landlords in St Andrews were charging students illegal fees.
“We told the students, be sure to apply common sense, as a general rule of thumb and be proactive. And when it comes to private landlords that includes things like a simple Google search and checking that they’re registered with the council.”
The accommodation team does not intend to slow down after their recent events, Mr Ciric emphasised.
They are planning to hold another drop-in session, but instead of having them in halls, they will host them in places more accessible to most students.
“In sub-committee meetings we are talking about doing it in the library, or in the Union, and aiming to have it around that first or second week of second semester when letting agencies will be releasing their lists. That’s when the big rush for housing begins to start,” Mr Ciric explained.
Another major event which the team plans to host during second semester is an accommodation forum, where students can discuss their concerns, issues and ideas with representatives from the Union and University.
“Last year when we held it, the Director of Residential and Business Services was there, the President of the Students’ Association was there, people from Student Services were there.
“There were about a dozen students who went, and even though there was a relatively low turnout, people who went were able to voice their concerns, and after speaking to all of the people from the University, they said that was really helpful. So we’re looking to hold an event like that again,” Mr Ciric said.
He also spoke to The Saint about the more regular, everyday work that is involved in his role as accommodation officer.
This includes convening forums for senior students from every hall to discuss their concerns and ideas, sitting on the Student Representatives’ Council (SRC) and working with other representatives on various projects.
As an example, Mr Ciric pointed to his recent work with the SRC Environment officer, Alice Pickthall, to publicise a service from Transition (an environmental group within the University) where they offer low energy lightbulbs for free.
Mr Ciric also explained how revamping the How to Rent guide to make it simpler and easier to read.
Asked what he felt the accommodation team have improved on since last year, Mr Ciric said: “Last year, we only really did things like flatmate speed dating events and that was it. I said we should change it up “I think there is more focus now on the drop in sessions and the how to rent talk that there was last year. I feel like we’ve done a good job in changing events.”
Explaining what he hopes to have achieved by the end of his time as accommodation officer, Mr Ciric said: “By the end of the year I just hope that students feel less clueless about housing, so people who are now in first year, or are looking for a house for the first time whatever year they may be in, won’t feel as clueless in upcoming years. I hope that they will feel comfortable giving advice to other students.”
Mr Ciric also emphasised that “there’s no need to panic when looking for houses and I hope that message gets conveyed to students.”
He added that “if you go about your housing application in a common sense way, if you’re proactive, if you’re organised, if you’re looking for a flat with the right people, you’ll get a house.”
“I’ve applied for houses as a student and it hasn’t always been easy, but everyone eventually finds a house that’s good for them,” he reassured students.
Mr Ciric also praised the work of the accommodation sub-committee, saying that “everyone does a great job in helping me make sure everything runs smoothly, especially in helping to run and organise events.”
He highlighted that as a result of the the sub-committee’s work, Angus and Stanley Smith, the post graduate student hall, now has a student-run committee for the first time in five years.
Overall, Mr Ciric and the accommodation team have invested a huge amount of time and effort into helping students navigate the problems of finding accommodation in St Andrews. As the interview concludes, Mr Ciric reiterates how he and the team simply want to be there to “answer questions from the point of view of a student.”