Dundee University’s halls are the most expensive in Scotland

Students living in university accommodation at the University of Dundee pay significantly more than their peers anywhere else in Scotland. DUSA’s president says it’s time for a rent freeze.

About 1,500 students live in one of the University’s four halls. Two residences, Belmont and Heathfield, are located on campus, and a third one, Seabraes, is a five-minute walk from the University. For 2013-14, students living there will be paying £4,865 per year. Rents are lower for residents of West Park, where rooms cost almost £4,200 – at the price of being two kilometres (1.2 miles) away from The Union and other campus facilities. These rates get tenants an en-suite single bedroom with about 13 square metres. Two more square metres will set them back an additional £140 per year.

No other University in Scotland charges more than Dundee for a self-catered single room. Rents in University residences in Edinburgh and Glasgow are significantly lower, despite higher average rents for one-bedroom properties in both cities. Even in “posh” St. Andrews, students who are fine with walking 15 minutes to the city centre can live in much more affordable accommodation.

Rents in Dundee University’s halls have risen dramatically since 2009. In 2009-10, hall residents paid about £4,100 for a standard room. Three years later, annual rents have gone up by £750, an increase of more than 18 percent.

Rents in university halls in ScotlandIn the same time period, monthly prices for other one-bedroom properties in Dundee have remained virtually unchanged, according to Rentright, a company that provides information on average prices of rental properties. Across all types of leased housing in Dundee, prices have fallen in the three years since September 2009.

The Residences Office claims that student accommodation at the University of Dundee was in a pitiful state before 2004. “In order to bring it up to modern standards expected of our students and of legislation, over £40 million was borrowed and invested through a joint partnership agreement” with Sanctuary Housing Association and the Bank of Scotland. Annual rent increases are negotiated and agreed to by the University under a process in which DUSA, the student association that also publishes this magazine, is consulted – or so the Residences Office claims.The University of Dundee’s Residences Office cautions against comparing rents among Scottish universities because of varying lease lengths and facility standards. There’s indeed one major difference: In Dundee’s halls, every room comes with an en-suite bathroom and shower, whereas most other Scottish students pay extra for these conveniences. Leases for undergraduate students, however, generally last around 39 weeks to cover the academic year. Other differences are marginal.

That’s an “inaccurate statement,” says Iain Kennedy, DUSA’s president. “A DUSA [representative] sits on a liaison committee, alongside staff from the University and Sanctuary Management, however this group does not have any control over financial issues.” Kennedy also said that DUSA has expressed concerns over rent increases in the past, but to no avail, because of the partnership agreement’s “financial process which ensures that the rent increases every year.”

The joint venture has been a double-edged sword for the University. In April 2007, some members of the University’s administrative governing body, the University Court, “felt that the current prices were uncompetitive,” according to meeting minutes. They urged the joint venture “to be cautious in setting prices [and] consider more innovative marketing ideas.”

A 2008 study by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) found that the University had incurred massive losses from the partnership. “Halls in the new student [residences] remain empty while the venture made losses of £500,000 [in 2007] and a staggering £1.3 million [in 2008]. The University’s share of this is £400,000 and the proportion appears to be rising,” according to the study. UNISON, a public sector trade union, noted in a PowerPoint presentation that the “University has had to provide funding to the company from its own revenues.”

Things have changed, apparently. The Residences Office claims that the occupation rate in halls now is “around 99 percent.” According to court minutes for April 2011, that is higher than projected. Yet the minutes also record that “for 2011-12, residence fees would be increased by 5.54 percent.” In other words, the residences are making more money than expected, but rents keep rising.

Living on campus has an obvious appeal, particularly for first-year students. “It’s convenient, first years have a guaranteed place, and it’s a great environment to meet new people,” says David, a Heathfield resident who started university last September. I asked him whether he felt that en-suite bathrooms and showers were necessary, given that most students share these facilities with flatmates once they move into private accommodation. He paused for a moment before saying, “well, it’s too expensive for my liking – but I guess it’s a nice little luxury.”

Rent increases in Dundee halls since 2009

That little luxury comes with a price tag that exceeds many student loans. The maximum amount paid out by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) currently is £5,570, but most students get much less. The average loan paid out by SAAS in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data is available, was £4,256 – more than £200 short of the rent in campus residences at the time.

Kennedy thinks it’s time for a rent freeze. “I believe we are now getting to a point where further rent increases are unsustainable. It’s my hope that the University, in conjunction with other partners in the [joint venture], will seek a review of the terms which determine annual rent increases.”

That’s unlikely to happen. The University cites a Residences Office survey in which nine out of ten first-year residents said that they “would recommend living in university residences to prospective first year students.” The University also points to the results of the most recent Times Higher Education Experience Survey which found that most Scottish students are less satisfied with their university accommodation than their peers in the rest of Britain. (North of the border, students at the University of West Scotland were unhappiest: UWS placed 106 out of 107 in the accommodation ranking.) The Residences Office proudly notes that in the study, “Dundee University was voted joint second for ‘Good Accommodation’ in the UK.”

But at almost five grand a year, there’s no reason why students should settle for anything less.