Education

Elite UK universities send students out of town as housing squeeze bites

Top universities are scrambling to find enough accommodation for thousands of extra students, after record numbers netted the high grades they needed to clinch their offers last week. Some students are being offered halls in other cities or shared rooms, as institutions buy up spare private accommodation.

Students were celebrating on Tuesday as nearly 45% of A-level entries across the UK were awarded an A or A*, despite more than a year of disruption and school closures. But some of the most selective institutions are worried that with only weeks to go until students start arriving, they don’t have enough bedrooms, teaching space, staff or specialist equipment to cope with all their unplanned extra students.

With many leading institutions turning down all “near-miss” candidates, they say they have also lost the flexibility to let in poorer students who have dropped a grade but shown potential.

A spokesperson for Bristol University, a member of the elite Russell Group, said in response to high demand for places in student halls they are introducing options “to ensure as many students as possible can be housed when they join us in the autumn”.

She said: “Some of these will not be their first choice and may include the option of low-cost shared rooms or accommodation nearby in Bath with a travel bursary included.”

Students who are unhappy with the room they are offered can defer, with “priority access” to accommodation next year, or the university will help them find private housing.

Like other elite universities, Bristol guarantees accommodation to students who made the university their first choice, but not those who put it as their “insurance”.

Last year St Andrews University housed some students in halls in Dundee, after accepting many extra students following the 2020 A-level fiasco. A spokesperson for the university, which is expected to be over-subscribed again this year, said they were making arrangements for anyone applying late for accommodation, but “numbers are still settling”.

The vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, said: “It is all a major headache. We are way over in a number of subjects. We will manage on accommodation by renting extra student blocks from private providers.”

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at the selective Bath University, said: “Parents in particular are always very keen to get fast answers on accommodation and it will be challenging at some universities. We may need to use private accommodation for students holding insurance places this year.”

He added: “Our preferred option is always to try and lease an accommodation block and sub-let it to students. If you put all your extra students into one place you can create a sense of community. It is much more challenging if you have to scatter small groups of students into different private accommodation.”

Prof Colin Riordan, VC of Cardiff University, another Russell Group member, said they were significantly over their targets in subjects including law, computer science, psychology and architecture.

He said: “We’ve definitely got pressure on accommodation, but we are fortunate because there is a good supply of private providers we can work with if necessary.”

Andrew Hargreaves, founder of dataHE, a consultancy which advises universities on admissions, says: “Selective universities won’t have the number of teaching staff to deal with all these extra students; they won’t have enough classrooms or enough accommodation. They will be doing their very best to try and manage this, but they simply can’t conjure up extra capacity overnight.”

Smita Jamdar, head of education at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, agreed: “Every university I work with wants to deliver a high-quality experience to their students. No one seems to be recognising that there are, however, practical limitations to what universities can do here.”

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