I’ll never forget the unadulterated joy of watching The Young Ones, the anarchic 80s comedy showing grimly hilarious extremes of student life. Four incompatible housemates in a rented house which conspired on a weekly basis to destroy them, via either an evil landlord, toxic fridge, rotten staircase, or filth and mould with occasional flashes of ancient wallpaper. This (minus explosions and talking hamsters) was what I expected and, for the most part, received as a student when my turn came in ’88 — a grotty house in Manchester with overflowing drains. But I paid nothing for tuition and received a grant which covered basic living expenses. I survived, and left university penniless, but also debtless. Endless rounds of beans-on-toast left marks on my dressing gown, but not on my finances.
How different the financial reality is now for students. A life-long burden of debt only makes sense as a trade-off for hopes of a more prosperous future, a bet laid early, and repaid over decades with interest. And what do they get? Well, if a recent example I saw in Bristol is representative, then ’80s squalor persists. For an annual outlay of £70,000, the students had secured crumbling walls, a decrepit kitchen and excrement on the floors. And this was on the day they moved in. The landlord had promised refurbishment over the summer, but little or nothing occurred. Bristol, like many other cities across the country, is a seller’s market. If you don’t like it, maybe you’d rather commute from Gloucester. Across the student experience, it’s clear that the consumer rights that many of us rely upon just don’t apply. During the pandemic, courses which cost thousands were altered radically, opportunities offered were reneged upon, and many scholars who complained or demanded refunds were given short shrift, revealing uni contracts written to give colleges carte blanche.
So where is regulation and enforcement? Well, if the crisis in the private rented sector reveals a blind spot we’ve developed as a nation, student housing takes that to the level of an astigmatism. Whether it’s accommodation or education, it almost feels like we’ve agreed that students don’t deserve any better, that they sold their consumer rights the first time they went clubbing in fresher’s week. That attitude ignores the fact that their money is real, as good as anyone’s, may take a lifetime of hard work to repay, and entitles them to the same protective legal framework that we take for granted.
Student life should be a liberating, carefree time. For many, their homes and courses are providing a short, sharp lesson in injustice, with a long repayment plan attached. Far too often it’s a miserable introduction to independent living for our Young Ones, who have been through so much in recent years, and who have many challenges ahead. In the context of mental health and wellbeing, it’s no laughing matter, and as a nation we must do better.