Doing shots till you throw up behind an All Bar One. Late-night conversations about nothing in particular with new friends from Freshers. Struggling to stay awake in lecture halls that smell like armpit. 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 lectures, 20-year-old University of Northampton student Tigerlily Taylor checks into a Travelodge for the night instead of rented student accommodation. Travelling up to uni two days a week and staying over for one night, Taylor estimates that her regular stays amount to £260 per month, paling in comparison to a room in halls.
In November 2021, her TikTok about the self-described “money saving tip” went viral and attracted over 700,000 views. “Genius,” says one commenter on Taylor’s page. “Saving so much money.” Another replied: “I do that too but at 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 simply glad I didn’t spend money on accommodation when all my lectures ended up being online.”
“I don’t think I’ve missed out on the university experience – I’ve made amazing friends at university and I’ve also got a friendship group at home.”
Jack Train, a 24-year-old electronic engineering student at Newcastle University, also commuted from Yorkshire the past academic year. “I’ll normally go up on Wednesday and stay overnight so I still get the sports socials,” he tells VICE.
While Jack would typically pay £400 per month for student accommodation, he saved £70 a week by commuting and staying in a Travelodge on the quayside. “You get free parking too,” he adds.
Being able to stay in a cheap hotel may be down to a fortuitous combination of uni timetables, proximity to one’s university and relative affordability. But others point to the less glamorous reality lurking underneath the surface: students being packed into hostel dorms, commuting for up to five hours a day, sleeping in cars and couch-surfing as a consequence of spiralling rents.
“Housing is so expensive for students, so it’s not surprising some of us are looking at more ‘creative’ ways to save money,” says Zac Larkham, a 20-year-old student. Larkham is a member of tenants’ union ACORN and helped organise a rent strike at Sheffield Hallam University, where he studies politics and sociology.
Is staying in hotels sustainable in the long-term? “There aren’t enough hotel rooms for every student to start doing the same thing,” says Larkham. “Lots of students commute by public transport which is a more affordable option… But what about estranged students or students studying far away from home?”
ACORN – which was set up in 2014 to advocate for renters – tells VICE that student hotel living is less a long-term solution and more a “temporary fix”. A spokesperson said: “It’s absurd that living in hotels and commuting to study is the cost-effective option for students, but not surprising.”
Higher education is becoming an increasingly costly path even as it continues to be heralded as the main means of forging a future. Rising student numbers have been accompanied by rising accommodation costs – a survey of nearly 500,000 beds found that UK students pay 60 percent more for halls of residence than they did a decade ago. Rent for university accommodation now averages £7,347 a year, almost two grand more than a typical maintenance loan of £5,640. In London, average rent for student accommodation totals £10,857 – 61 percent more than the average for the rest of the UK.
And that’s before you factor in the shortage of university housing due to the increase in student numbers due to the record numbers of A Level students getting an A or A* – a situation that in turn drives up demand for even more housing.
A report from the National Union of Students (NUS) and housing charity Unipol highlights that private providers are shifting to offer luxury studio apartments in the hope of enticing more well-off international students. Rapidly rising costs, worse living conditions and precarious housing – coupled with government plans to change the rate at which student loans are repaid – arguably serve to cement student reluctance to pay for soaring rents. This, coupled with the cost of living crisis, are understandably putting financial worries at the front of some students’ minds when coming to university.
Ultimately, the fact that students may choose – or are compelled – to stay in hotels instead of student accommodation “is an appalling indictment of the unaffordability baked into higher education”, says Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS Vice-President for Higher Education. “Maintenance grants must be re-introduced, and universities and the housing sector must go beyond ensuring affordability meets the threshold set out in the research NUS conducted alongside the Poverty Commission in 2018.”
Still, students may have more agency than they think. “What’s feasible is reminding those in the cycle of rent paying that they hold far more power than they may believe,” says an organiser from the Northampton Rent Strikes. In 2021, the student group put forward five demands to their university, including a 40 percent rent reduction for the 2020/21 academic year. “A key tactic is to find out the other properties leased by your landlord – and to organise rent strikes amongst their tenants across the board, forcing rent reductions.”
In 2021, national rent strikes at 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,” argues Larkham. “Quality, affordable housing isn’t too much to ask for, but that only happens through organising on our campuses and in our communities.”
Until that happens, don’t be surprised if your mate from lectures ends their night out going home to the local Premier Inn.