The university is set to increase rent for on-campus accommodation by an above-inflation 3.4% each year in a bid to increase the profit it makes by renting rooms to students. The news comes as union research, seen by Concrete, indicates that a third of UEA students think the university should prioritise bringing down the cost of living, and just months after Concrete exclusively reported that UEA was already making millions in profit from accommodation.
According to the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS), the university made a gross surplus of £5.8m on its accommodation portfolio in the last academic year. The union estimates that this gross surplus will rise to between £7m and £10m by 2017, and that it will have doubled within five years. Following the results of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Concrete reported in September that the university’s total net profit from accommodation over the last two academic years was £4.35m.
Profits made from rent are not earmarked specifically for investment in improving and maintaining halls, but instead contribute to the university’s general budget, provoking outrage from the union. Responding to the revelations of the FOI, the union’s Campaigns and Democracy Officer, Chris Jarvis, said that the fees were “A way of universities getting round the [£9,000 tuition fee] cap by propping up their finances through secondary costs on students”.
Following a recent accommodation meeting between the university and UUEAS, Jo Swo, Welfare, Community and Diversity Officer, criticised the way the university determines rent increases: “[UEA] has decided on a massive rent increase behind closed doors, and can’t answer basic questions on the role of rent costs in relation to student affordability”. She called for the university to “open meaningful dialogue over rent setting” and to make affordability a “top priority”.
However, a university spokesperson said that UEA’s present rent policy was part of a deal agreed with the union. “The university, with the support of the student union, took a decision some years ago not to sell its residences off to a third party for a substantial capital sum”. In return for foregoing the benefit of a one-off windfall profit, “it was agreed that UEA would look to raise income from the residences to generate a surplus for re-investment in facilities across campus for the benefit of students”. The spokesperson pointed out that one such investment was last summer’s “£6m refurbishment of Union House”.
When pressed, the university did not directly comment on whether it has plans to increase the number of cheaper rooms on campus: “UEA has a varied portfolio of residential accommodation and rents. Students from lower income households have access to additional financial support including non-repayable maintenance grants and bursaries”.
Sources at the union have suggested to Concrete that the university does not consider widening access to higher education and the rising cost of living to be linked. Instead, the union believes that UEA is treating the rent of halls of residents separately to ensuring that more students from lower income backgrounds attend university. The issues are presently dealt with by different university committees.