Students in the market…

STUDENT accommodation has featured in my life in assorted ways. First there was the rather grand hall I lived as a student in London (very nice, very large terrace houses run together) and then the various places where the Cole offspring live or have lived.

The two boys lived separately in a student dive in Preston and a student dive in Salford, plus rented houses, while our daughter, the only one who is still a student, lived in a hall, followed by two privately rented properties, including her present one.

She didn’t much like the hall, which was modern and superficially smart, but seemingly not a patch on what is being built now (“Flatscreen TVs, chic interiors… and rents of up to £300 a week. Private developers move in on student accommodation market” – The Observer, last Sunday).

Student living has affected me in other ways, and that’s excluding all those journeys conveying the offspring to student digs, and later bringing them back in the over-stuffed estate smelling of dirty washing. We’ve covered some miles the old car and me; one of us has more miles on the clock but I’m not saying which.

Where we used to live in York until five years ago was almost an unofficial student ghetto. Attractive streets and decent houses were taken over, one by one, over-filled bin by over-filled bin, until what had once been an area for families became a transient place for students passing through.

Sometimes they went about being all too transient outside our house at 4am shouting and playing football in the street. Sometimes they dragged chairs and sofas into the front yards, played music and had street parties. Sometimes we minded and sometimes we didn’t. We just moved in the end.

Even my old job was affected by where students live. A relatively new newspaper building, something of a landmark in York, was demolished to make way for student accommodation. The once-proud newspaper was squeezed next door into a building that seemed small, until they started laying off even more people. Now it isn’t so small.

As more and more young people are encouraged to go to university, it is possible to wonder where this might all lead. One destination is evident: in smart but surely too luxurious student residences.

Once universities built functional halls, but now much of that provision has in effect been privatised, with universities passing the job onto private developers. These forms build what sound like very decent and top-end residences or apartments, some of which can cost up to £10,000 a year to rent (a smart new block in Exeter, according to The Observer report).

Now it struck this man on a ledge as a good thing, back in the days before ledge-living became a necessity, that more and more people were being encouraged to study at university. This Labour-led boost seemed to me to be a way of democratising university, making it available to students of all backgrounds.

And maybe it was and maybe it is.

Yet it is easy now to worry that young people are being packaged up as a ready market, forced to carry huge debts to pay for an education that may not benefit them as much as advertised. And all the while ploughing far too much of that loan into supporting companies that build unnecessarily luxurious places for them to live in.

More students than ever now have jobs while at university (not in itself a bad thing, but it does indicate that wallets are tight). And, according to a report released today, more graduates are ending up in jobs they don’t really need a degree to do. Over-qualification is at saturation point, with nearly 60 per cent of graduates doing jobs deemed to be non-graduate roles, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Okay, that is one report. But it does add to concerns that while a good degree is a passport to a decent job, a mediocre degree might just see young people doing the sort of job that in the past no one needed a degree to do.

But never mind. Big money, including North American, Canadian and even Russian investment, is going into building somewhere for students to sleep off their hangovers or lie awake at night worrying about all that future debut.

Something in all this doesn’t quite add up. Unless you’re a company that builds what once used to be known simply as student halls.

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