Do hits until you vomit behind an All Bar One. Late night conversations about nothing in particular with new Freshers friends. Struggling to stay awake in armpit-smelling lecture halls. We all know what University is supposed to be like – but does staying in a cheap hotel to cut costs make a difference?
After finishing a day of classes, Tigerlily Taylor, a 20-year-old student at the University of Northampton, checks into a Travelodge for the night instead of rented student accommodation. Traveling to college two days a week and staying one night, Taylor reckons her regular stays come in at £260 a month, which pales in comparison to a room in the halls.
In November 2021, she ICT Tac about the self-proclaimed “money saving trick” has gone viral and garnered over 700,000 views. “Genius,” said a commenter on Taylor’s page. “Saving so much money.” Another replied: “I do that too but at the Premier Inn.” For others, it’s a story that highlights the disparity between grim reality and soaring student accommodation costs.
Taylor, who lives with her parents in Hertfordshire, tells VICE: “Commuting seemed like the best option for me. COVID-19 didn’t really impact my decision – I’m just glad I didn’t spend money on accommodation when all my lectures ended up online.
“I don’t think I missed out on the college experience – I made some amazing friends in college and have a group of friends back home too.”
Jack Train, a 24-year-old electronics engineering student at Newcastle University, has also been commuting from Yorkshire in the past academic year. “Normally I go up on Wednesdays and spend the night, so I always have the sports socials,” he told VICE.
While Jack would typically pay £400 a month for student accommodation, he saved £70 a week commuting and staying in a Travelodge on the quayside. “You also get free parking,” he adds.
Being able to stay in a budget hotel may be due to a fortuitous combination of college hours, proximity to one’s university, and relatively affordable price. But others point to the less glamorous reality lurking beneath the surface: Students are crammed into hostel dorms, commute up to five hours a day, sleep in cars and surf on couches due to soaring rents.
“Housing is so expensive for students, so it’s no surprise that some of us are looking for more ‘creative’ ways to save money,” says 20-year-old student Zac Larkham. Larkham is a member of the ACORN tenants’ union and helped organize a rent strike at Sheffield Hallam University, where he is studying politics and sociology.
Is the hotel stay sustainable in the long term? “There aren’t enough hotel rooms for every student to start doing the same thing,” Larkham says. “Many students travel by public transport, a more affordable option… But what about distant students or students studying away from home?”
ACORN – which was created in 2014 to advocate for tenants – tells VICE that student life at the hotel is less of a long-term solution than a “temporary solution”. A spokesperson said: “It’s absurd that living in hotels and commuting to school is the most cost-effective option for students, but it’s no surprise.”
Higher education is becoming an increasingly expensive route even as it continues to be touted as the primary means of forging a future. The rise in student numbers has been accompanied by rising accommodation costs – a survey of nearly 500,000 beds found that UK students pay 60% more for residences than ten years ago. Rent for university accommodation now averages £7,347 a year, almost two thousand dollars more than a typical maintenance loan of £5,640. In London, the average rent for student accommodation is £10,857, which is 61% higher than the average for the rest of the UK.
And that’s before taking into account the shortage of university accommodation due to rising student numbers due to record numbers of A-level students earning an A or A* – a situation which in turn drives up demand for even more accommodation.
A report from the National Union of Students (NUS) and housing charity Unipol point out that private providers are turning to luxury studios in the hope of attracting more affluent international students. Rapidly rising costs, deteriorating living conditions and precarious housing – coupled with government plans to change the rate at which student loans are repaid – no doubt serves to cement students’ reluctance to pay skyrocketing rents. This, coupled with the Cost of life crisis, naturally put financial worries at the forefront of some students’ minds when they come to college.
Ultimately, the fact that students can choose – or are forced – to stay in hotels rather than student accommodation “is an appalling indictment of the unaffordability of higher education”, says Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice -President of the NUS for higher education. “Maintenance subsidies must be reintroduced, and universities and the housing sector must go beyond ensuring affordability meets the threshold set in NUS research conducted alongside the Commission on Poverty in 2018. “
Still, students can have more agency than they realize. “What is doable is to remind those in the cycle of paying rent that they hold a lot more power than they realize,” says an organizer from Northampton Rent Strikes. In 2021, the student group proposed five requests at their university, including a 40% rent reduction for the 2020/21 academic year. “A key tactic is to find out what other properties your landlord is renting out – and organize rent strikes among their tenants at all levels, forcing rent reductions.”
In 2021, national rent strikes in universities across England demonstrated this level of fierce resistance against landlordism. “We shouldn’t be reduced to commuting or living in hotels to keep up with the cost of living,” says Larkham. “Affordable, quality housing isn’t too much to ask, but it only happens by getting organized on our campuses and in our communities.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised if your course mate ends their evening by returning home to the local Premier Inn.