Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Student Living

Last week we finally received the great news that my son had been awarded a place on the MA course he applied for at the beginning of July.

This was a tremendous achievement on his part as the Department is rated second in the country for the subject and they describe the competition for the course as "fierce", deliberately keeping the number of students down in order to preserve a high staff to student ratio. As part of the application process he had to produce a research proposal and a piece of critical writing as his degree is in an unrelated subject (Law). He worked very hard on all this and we're extremely proud of him.

Since we now have a clear plan for our retirement and are pretty sure we have (more or less) enough to do what we want to be able to do, we have decided to gift £17,500 of our ISA savings to each of our sons as an "Opportunities Fund" to be used to allow them to do something they would otherwise not be able to do, hopefully to improve their lives permanently. This may (or may not) be directly tied to job prospects as personal satisfaction and development comes in many forms. :-) The eldest is using his to go back to University and the youngest is leaving his with us for the time being until he has a good use for it.

In addition to gifting the £17,500 we have also said that my eldest son can live rent free in our studio flat for the year. Our youngest son has already made use of the flat between his MA and PhD when he was doing some intern work and applying for funding. This is, in fact, why we bought the flat, as we only own a modest semi and having an adult son live at home can get a bit "cramped" if it goes on for any length of time. :-)

(btw I am painfully aware that my sons have both been given an educational advantage by having parents who have been able to afford to supplement student loans, internships, housing and life in general. I am ideologically opposed to the idea that education is ever something that should be allowed to exclude people for financial reasons and would never have sent them to private school, but parents these days seem increasing sucked into supporting their kids through further education if they can. As this becomes the norm surely the kids of those who cannot afford to help become actively disadvantaged? One for my conscience (and vote)).

Having now got the offer of a place we have been thinking in more depth about accommodation and my son has decided that he would rather live on campus if possible. Although our studio flat is only about 30 mins by road from the University he doesn't drive and there is only one bus an hour and none after 6.30 in the evening. He had been thinking about getting a bike as there is a cycle route for some of the way but travelling home late in winter on poorly lit roads was a bit of a worry. In addition it would be good for him to be in the thick of things and we wouldn't have to give our tenant notice (something I'm loath to do as she has been very good and is obviously happy where she is despite only signing up for 6 months initially).

However the student accommodation prices came as a bit of a shock. As a postgraduate needing a 51 week rental the full range of choice of halls was not available to him and he's basically confined to a cheaper option of £5,800 (shared bathroom) and £6,700 (en suite).

Comparing these costs to the income/costs associated with him living in our studio flat works out like this:
  • After tax income from rental (estimated as it depends if any further repairs are required and\or the tenant gives notice): £3,700
  • Estimated utilities (electricity, broadband, water) to pay if in flat - currently covered by tenant: £1,000
  • Council Tax (currently covered by tenant): £1,200
Total: £5,900

So, taking into account the travelling costs associated with living in the flat and the fact that living on campus entitles you to 10% discount at food outlets and bars on site means that, although the university accommodation seems mighty expensive when compared to our studio flat, it would actually be more or less cost neutral for my son to live there.

This calculation was quite interesting from another point of view. If we are getting a profit of around £3,500 pa on our studio flat and it works out that it costs our son just about the same to live in what used to be called University "Halls", surely the University is raking in huge profits at these kind of prices. Their overheads must be proportionally much smaller given the scale of their service. They have a captive rental "audience" and can control their void periods (the rooms are let out for conferences and visitors during the vacations) and service the flats using their own maintenance staff.

It all seems a bit scandalous except for the fact that we have to recognise that this is yet another reflection of the ongoing trend towards the commercialisation of education. Government funding for universities has been reduced so they have to make money somewhere. What then happens is that cheap accommodation for the students without parents with the wherewithal to help becomes scarce and the poorer students are forced out into the private sector with all its attendant stresses and difficulties, things that young people leaving home for the first time do not always have the skills to manage.

Personally I'd rather pay a bit more tax, fund the universities properly so they can provide affordable accommodation and remove tuition fees for UK students, put kids back on their own two feet with a fair and adequate grant system and make sure that further education is only seen as attractive for the right reasons by the right people. Somehow, though, this all seems to be moving further and further out of reach.


  1. There is obviously a direct and linear relationship between:

    -> forcing more and more young people to have degrees to enter middle income careers
    -> increasing the cost to young people of getting said education
    -> young people becoming a poorer and poorer age cohort compared to those older

    The actually results will be seen about 20 years down the line when most of this cohort hit middle age and have little/nothing unless they inherit it

    1. I think it's true that the expectation that a "good" candidate for a middle income career will have a degree has certainly risen. I'm not sure who's setting bar higher - employers? or just the market force that if two otherwise equally suitable candidates turn up for a job the one with the degree is more likely to get the post, even if it is not a requirement for the job? Given the facts that a candidate who hasn't gone to university is likely to have spent time in the work place gaining valuable experience and that a large proportion of graduates end up in jobs which don't need a degree anyway there seems to be something going wrong somewhere.

      What will happen 20 years down the line is a little scary and I think you're right to say that inherited wealth (if it exists) will be the biggest source of "funding" for many of the young people of today as they head towards retirement.

  2. Congratulations to your son on getting his place!

    When you compare things with the olden days -

    > Personally I'd rather pay a bit more tax, fund the universities properly so they can provide affordable accommodation and remove tuition fees for UK students, put kids back on their own two feet with a fair and adequate grant system and make sure that further education is only seen as attractive for the right reasons by the right people.

    you should remember that proportionally far, far fewer children went to university. When I entered university 36 years ago, 7% of school leavers went to university, when I left three years later 11% of them did. The taxpayer could support that sort of number, and did, with grants, though note that these were already withdrawn for middle class earners, although tuition was paid in all cases I believe.

    Student accommodation was absolutely crap by modern standards - I shared toilets and bathrooms with other residents, at times I shared rooms. This seems to be considered totally unacceptable these days.

    Something had to change when we decided that 50% of young people needed to go to university, and that something was funding. I would be all for a return to taxpayer-funded grant funding, but I would want to see student numbers fall to 20% of what they are now with much stricter admission criteria, otherwise the taxpayer will be bankrupted The commercialisation of university is appalling and the lifting of a limit on the number admitted is going to see some ugly commercial practices. But in the end people do vary by academic ability and aptitude. A university entrance target of 50% means university is for the averagely able and up. That's a very different user base to what university used to be aimed at. This failure to discriminate because everyone has to be a winner has simultaneously devalued the worth of the product and jacked up its price astronomically. It seems a terribly high price to pay for us lacking the spine to tell young people that university is for the few, not for the many...

    1. Hi ermine,
      I agree that the proportion of kids going to uni is far too high (that is what I meant by saying that further education should only be seen as attractive by the right people for the right reasons). Three extra years of academic study (and therefore 3 lost years of earning potential) should only be of value to kids with a solid and particular skill set, i.e. obviously well above average academic ability. This ability should be "tested" in a fair way with an equal opportunity to shine afforded to all by good state schooling allowing kids to realise potential whatever their background, without arbitrary age cut offs like the 11+ meaning you ended up in either a good grammar or poor to middling secondary modern - future signed and sealed at 11 years old. (The 11+ was actually a system both my husband and I benefited from - both of us being the first in our families to get to uni. but the two tier school system it tended to produce as a by-product was deeply unfair.)

      What we need to have the spine to do is not to tell young people that university is just for the few, but to tell their parents that they can't buy it for their kids if the aptitude just isn't there. This should apply to private education right across the board which leeches the state system of teachers educated and trained by the tax payer. There are only very few cases where it should be possible to "buy" education - special aptitude in music or art maybe? For the rest there should be a level playing field which supports everyone. The other side of the coin is worthwhile employment opportunities or vocational based training for young people as an alternative to 3 expensive years spent doing mediocre academic work, in a subject picked out of a hat in which they have no real interest but for which they just managed to scrape the grades.

      (btw I shared a room at Uni too. Things have certainly changed - apparently the business in "luxury living" for students is booming.)

  3. As this BBC item says, over 58% of graduates are in non-graduate jobs (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-33983048). They will have lost out on 3 years earning, 3 years relevant experience in that sector and have a high debt to repay from traditionally low paying jobs. And those who wisely chose to not do degrees will be hitting a glass ceiling in their early 20's as employers make a degree a predicate for many jobs, and auto-filter out actually far more suitable candidates

    The graduates might move out of non-graduate jobs as the economy improves or they get a break, but the non-graduates will keep being knocked back by a new generation of graduates prepared to make-do

    I don't think non-graduate jobs are inferior, they often require non-academic skills that I don't have, but the idea that a degree is everything condemns them to low prospects.

    1. All very true. A degree has become a purchasable commodity which opens doors but doesn't reflect real ability to do many of the jobs for which it has become an (often unstated) requirement. It makes you wonder where the actual winners are in all this mess.

  4. "I am painfully aware that my sons have both been given an educational advantage": I'll bet they have. Allow me to guess that the main advantages they've had have been (i) Their cunning choice of parents, and (ii) Their parents' determination to ensure they didn't attend the worst schools.

    I have yet to meet anyone who fought educational advantage by clearing all their books out of the house, conversing only in grunts, and sending their children to the worst school they could identify, moving to be nearer it if necessary. I don't say it's rare: I say it's never happened. Naturally I am open to correction.

    1. No correction from me on that, but what I would say is that some very bright kids are "blessed" with parents that don't recognise the value of books, don't have the wherewithal to avoid the worst schools and don't have the time and energy to converse as much as they should. These kids need a system that doesn't depend on parental support and the luck of the draw.

      Society loses out if we leave the future of our talented youngsters to be decided by the dice they rolled when choosing their parents. On the other side of the coin, we also lose out if we allow our future "high flyers" to be chosen by the very fact that their parents have wealth and influence, and not by the strength of their abilities.

  5. Hi Cerridwen

    Great news that your son is on the MA course - the best of luck to him!

    Interesting about the accommodation - I lived in halls during my first year; I had my own tiny room and shared bathroom, toilet and kitchen with 7 others on my floor. Very basic but cheap. In my final years, I shared a cramped and mouldy house with 3 others (and the occasional mouse!) - again basic but cheap.

    Luxury student accommodation just astonishes me (although I nearly invested in one as the yields are pretty high and rental almost guaranteed during term time but I heard they were quite difficult to sell so ended up buying my flat). What expectations will these young uns have upon looking for their starter homes, when they've lived in luxury as students - no wonder the housing ladder will be so steep!

  6. Hi weenie, I actually had a very strange experience of university accommodation in my first year as I got put in an all-girls "Hall" complete with senior and junior common rooms and a rota for sitting at the "High " table with the Warden for Sunday Lunch. Most of the girls were privately educated and so were used to all the protocol but it was all very unfamiliar to "Bemused from Barnsley" (i.e. me) and my room mate (who came from Rotherham Girls High as I remember.).

    Life was a lot simpler when I got into the second year and could live in "ordinary" halls much like the ones you describe.

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