Prestigious Scottish university faces student housing crisis

One of Scotland’s most prestigious universities is facing a student housing crisis just three weeks from the start of the semester, with hundreds still scrambling to secure accommodation before the beginning of term.

The University of St Andrews earlier this month acknowledged receiving direct requests for help from more than 130 homeless students. The Campaign for Affordable Student Housing (CASH) has reported 400 students who have identified themselves as still without accommodation.

In an August 4 response to students regarding the housing crisis, the university cited “external factors” beyond its control as the cause of a dearth of available housing.

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These factors include a recently imposed cap on houses of multiple occupation in St Andrews, and the significant conversion of student rentals into Airbnbs, as the result of both the Private Housing Act in 2017, which increased tenants’ rights, and the recent Open Championship.

New students at the University of St Andrews take part in the traditional Pier Walk along the harbour walls of St Andrews before the start of the new academic year.
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The acceptance of a far larger number of students in 2020 and 2021 as the result of both the UK and Scottish governments’ pandemic-induced decision to award A-level and Higher exam results by teacher-assessed grades has also been cited as a factor.

CASH has said it holds the university predominantly responsible for the housing crisis, citing the demolition of Albany Park in 2018 and the pushed-back construction date for a new hall, which is now projected for completion in 2026.

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The organisation also cites St Andrews’ acceptance of 40 per cent more postgraduate students in 2020 as a key issue – students whose admission was not government mandated.

The university has publicly announced it is offering alternative accommodation for those in need. In 2020, the first year the incoming class of students exceeded the capacity of the extant halls of residence, St Andrews partnered with purpose-built student accommodation provider, Mears Student Life, to provide students with rooms in The Old Mill, a student housing facility in Dundee.

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Though the university described The Old Mill as being located in “nearby Dundee”, the webpage for the residence hall also states that it takes nearly an hour to commute from the hall into St Andrews via public transport.

And while the university has assured students they will be housed in “dedicated St Andrews blocks”, the page also indicates Old Mill students will have access to both the unions and libraries of the Universities of Dundee and Abertay – an acknowledgement of the level of separation between The Old Mill and St Andrews’ facilities.

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A total of 96 per cent of those placed in The Old Mill in their first year reported to CASH this sense of separation “had a serious negative impact on their mental health” and affected their studies.

“Many are flying across the world to study in St Andrews,” CASH said in a statement. “They did not choose Dundee and, for many students, particularly those who are disabled or faith practicing, this offer is simply not an option.”

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Despite the university’s claims there is plenty of housing available in Dundee for those in need, many students’ requests for accommodation in The Old Mill are believed to have been ignored or even rejected.

One parent said: “Our daughter has followed the university’s suggestion to apply to the additional dorms in Dundee. [But] she has heard nothing and we are three weeks from the start of school. We are hearing from other parents that they’ve been denied a spot in Dundee and they applied in mid-July.”

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Panicked parents are being forced to seek alternate options, including long-term Airbnb rentals, hotel stays, or even buying homes in St Andrews or nearby areas.

"We have decided we are willing to buy a property just to keep her in school,” writes the parent of a third-year student, who is preparing to fly to St Andrews and pay cash for a property to secure her daughter housing.

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But for the majority of parents, such options do not appear financially feasible.

"We were hoping to find somewhere for no higher than £700 a month, but that is proving almost impossible,” says Chris Reilly, the mother of a second-year student who has been house hunting since March. “We’re feeling pretty desperate.”

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In light of the crisis, many parents are being forced to consider deferring or withdrawing their students in spite of non-refundable tuition payments made months ago, and are expressing disappointment with the university’s lack of transparency regarding the housing shortage.

One frustrated mother said: “When we visited the college in 2019, we were assured that housing was very available and that the university is very focused on the needs and concerns of the students. We have found the opposite to be true.

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"The university has not only misled incoming students about housing, they are denying the extent of the crisis.”

A St Andrews University spokesperson said: “We sympathise greatly with the stress students have reported flat hunting in a housing environment that is more highly pressured than ever. In St Andrews this year, this is related to a wider lack of properties available in the rental market for reasons entirely beyond the university’s control. Several of these factors are common to universities across the country.

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“We will continue to prioritise new entrant first-year students to ensure they have accommodation in time for the start of the semester. The University of St Andrews guarantees an offer of accommodation to all first-year undergraduate students that have applied.

"St Andrews currently provides more university-managed accommodation per head of population than almost any other university in the UK. Over 40 per cent of our students live in university residences.”

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A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: “We agree with NUS Scotland that every student should have a safe and affordable place to live. We will continue to work with NUS Scotland to achieve this and we are fully engaged with the Scottish Government’s review of purpose-built student accommodation.”

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