Graduate housing tenants have complained that University rent increases put them under increased financial pressure. A change in Oxford City Council policy also means they will have to pay more council tax.

These changes could add 15% to living costs for graduate students in University accommodation. The imposition of a 4.57% rent increase by the university follows a total 23% increase since 2015. 

A formal complaint was filed against the University in April this year, requesting a suspension of the decision on rent due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and rises in council tax. 

The Graduate Accommodation office has refused to suspend rent increases, encouraging students to apply for hardship funds. This decision was upheld at a Property Management Sub-Committee meeting. Only one representative from the Student Union was present at the meeting.

This seems to have affected students’ desire to stay in their accommodation. In a survey of 69 student tenants, 81.3% reported they were considering leaving due to this policy and 64% said the increase will mean spending 60% of their household income on living costs.

The University describes its graduate accommodation as “affordable”, although according to the CIH and National Housing Federation, an “affordable rent” should consume less than 30% of household income.

Cherwell has received comments from several tenants on the issue, all of whom wish to remain anonymous. 

“As a parent to a toddler I already face extremely high expenses on childcare here in Oxford”, said one tenant. 

“We already pay £2,210 only for accommodation and childcare each month. This is while most stipends are only around £1,200 per month. Many couples and families have already left Oxford because of the University’s policy.”

Another tenant added: “I am reticent to draw on the hardship funds, as although the rent increase may push me out of University housing, I fully understand that each and every one of my neighbours faces a similar situation. This is a crisis that all of us must face and which cannot be solved by individual appeals for extra funding alone.”

A third tenant told Cherwell: “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic my course (medicine) has been completely suspended until further notice. I have received no financial advice from the university concerning how this unspecified length of time with no opportunity to study will affect my ability to receive a student loan or sustain myself. I am currently living off savings with no concrete information to help me plan financially for the future.”

Graphic by Charlotte Bunney

In response to these claims, the University said: “The wellbeing of students is a key priority for the University, particularly in the current exceptional circumstances.

“Council tax policy remains a decision for Oxford City Council. However, we have listened and responded to the concerns of our graduate students in respect of council tax changes. We have engaged with Oxford City Council on our tenants’ behalf, and as a result a decision not to apply the charges during the current tenancy period has been agreed. This change in exemptions by the council only applies to households where one or more resident is not in full time education and no other exemptions apply.”

“The recommendation for rent increases in 2020/21 was decided at University committee level in September 2019. Affordability was a key issue in the decision and student interests were represented by Oxford Student Union. These increases are part of a longer-term plan, agreed in consultation, after a period of historically low rents.

“In light of Covid-19, a review of the decision was carried out by the committee in May 2020. Once again student interests were represented by the Student Union, and the rent increase was upheld as reasonable.

“Graduate accommodation rents, when compared with equivalent properties in Oxford for size and amenities, still remain below the open market rates.

“The University takes the impact of current circumstances very seriously. If students have a licence or tenancy agreement for University or College accommodation this term, but are not in residence, they will not be charged rent. In light of the current crisis, the University is also making available additional hardship funding to support students needing help.

The Council said: “Oxford City Council reviewed its student property portfolio during the last financial year. Some self-contained flats belonging to the University of Oxford and to Oxford Brookes University had been made exempt from Council Tax charges under the Halls of Residence regulations for a number of years. This was incorrect and the exemption had to be removed.

“The Council agreed with the University of Oxford and Brookes, in January 2020, that the exemption would remain in place until the occupiers’ tenancy agreements came to an end, guaranteeing the current tenants would remain exempt from Council Tax until their current lease expired. Anyone signing up to a new lease would have to apply for a student exemption class N or a student-related discount and the qualifying criteria applied.

“If the properties are leased to a mixture of qualifying student and non-student occupiers then the student occupier would be disregarded and the remaining resident will be liable for a discounted Council Tax charge.

“The changes correct a misinterpretation of the regulations that was applied solely to Oxford University and Brookes properties. The student occupiers of other self-contained accommodation within the City already conform to the regulations.

“Anyone remaining and signing a new tenancy agreement was advised of the changes to the policy and how it would affect them by the Oxford University Accommodation Unit on the 19 February. A similar arrangement was reached with Brookes.

“Our actions will impact on those households where the partner is not a full time student, is able to work or has access to public funds.

“The City Council’s actions will restore equity to the way we treat students in self-contained accommodation. It does not deprive the student, or qualifying dependant, of the opportunity to apply for an exemption or disregard. If their partners work and or claim benefits, they will have access to support through the Council Tax Reduction scheme or to apply for assistance under the hardship regulations.

“The University has received 248 requests for renewals or extensions. A percentage of these will be subject to a charge.”

Meanwhile, graduate students at Balliol College have been told to leave accommodation if they wish to complete voluntary work with the NHS.

In emails seen by Cherwell, the College has told a student wishing to volunteer with the NHS that they would have to vacate their room during the lockdown. 

A student at Balliol, who wished to remain anonymous, told Cherwell: “I was told by the Profectus and the Dean that I would have to leave if I wanted to do any kind of volunteer work. Initially they said I would not be able to come back until the pandemic was over and would have to pay rent still as my room would be full of my stuff. 

“After I pushed back on this they said I could come get my possessions but still would not be able to live in my room for the duration of my NHS work.” 

The College’s decision was based on safety concerns for other residents in graduate accommodation. The University has been contacted for comment on this issue.

Cover Graphic by Isabella Lill.