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College rents see up to 13.6% spike amidst cost-of-living struggles

A Cherwell investigation has found that the average rent increase among Oxford colleges for 2023 sits at 8.62%, up from an average of 7.6% last year. The increases could be anything between 5% to 13.6%, and these are set to provoke hardship for some in the coming year amidst the cost-of-living crisis.

St Peter’s College is facing one of the heftiest rent hikes, at 12%. The college faced criticism last year when they unveiled the proposed rent prices of two new accommodation blocks – the cheapest room in these accommodation blocks being £5589 for a 27-week lease. On the other end of the scale, St John’s College and St Queen’s College (the first and fourth most wealthy colleges, respectively) increased rent by only 5% this year.

Wadham is another college facing large rent increases. After an initial proposed 14% increase, which would have resulted in extortionate hikes of between £682.20 and £922.74 annually, the JCR negotiated their increase down to 11%. Wadham SU wrote an open letter to Wadham College Trustees, declaring the increase “inexcusable” on the basis that it would provoke extreme financial hardship among students. Within this open letter, Wadham SU threatened action such as withholding of rent or an SU boycott of college food if rent negotiations could not be reopened, before agreeing on the final 11% figure.  

Many colleges use the Van Noodern Index (VNI) to determine the rent increase for the coming year, however recently there has been a shift away from the VNI figure. The index measures “collegiate inflation” and has been criticised in the past for a lack of transparency. Furthermore, in a recent investigation, Cherwell revealed that VNI presents consistently higher figures than standard inflation indices. For example, the VNI for 2023 came out to 13.6%, nearly double CPI in June 2023, which stood at 7.9%. 

Christ Church is set to have the highest rent hike across colleges for the second year running, strictly following the VNI figure of 13.6%.  However, Christ Church offers extensive financial assistance schemes – there is a 50% and 25% discount on rent and “season tickets” for college dinners, for which the household income threshold has been raised in line with the VNI figure.

A Cherwell poll of 356 students found that 45% were “very concerned” about accommodation costs, 42% were “mildly concerned”, and only 9% were “not concerned at all.” When asked how the rent increases would affect them, many students said they would not be able to live in college accommodation due to rising prices, seeking private rental instead, with most saying they would have to make cuts to their budgets. One student also added: “Many many less pints.”

With student maintenance loans set to increase by a mere 2.8%, many students fear it will not be enough to tackle rising costs. One Pembroke student told Cherwell: “With my maintenance loan increasing by around 3% and rent by 8.5%, it means my loan no longer covers my accommodation costs… Even with having got very lucky on the room ballot, I am entirely dependent on what my parents can contribute and my job as a private tutor to fund food, socialising, and everything else. It means this year is going to be a lot more difficult than last and I’m going into it not thinking about my studies but of the tight budget I’m going to have to keep to.”

When considering the effect of the increase for the future, the St Catz JCR President and Vice President told Cherwell: “As St Catz was founded as an access college, our founding principles of equality and fairness must be reflected in our rent. We believe that further rent increases should be paused or heavily subsidised following recent years’ adjustments (11.8% rent increase in 2022 and 7.7% rent increase in 2023). It is essential that on-site accommodation remains an accessible option for all students regardless of background or financial circumstance.”

Some colleges have opted to increase their hardship funding as a result – for example, Balliol has increased the maximum award for their Student Maintenance Grant from £1000 to £1500 per student, and the maximum award for their Hardship Grant has increased from £500 to £1000. However, some students have expressed concerns about accessibility to their college hardship funds. For example, whilst the hardship fund at St Catz has been expanded, students have argued that it “ignores people’s financial realities” to require students to have less than £1000 in their bank accounts to be eligible. The St Catz JCR President and Vice President added: “We acknowledge and welcome College’s recent commitment to expanding the hardship fund as it is a lifeline for some students. We call upon them to translate this commitment into tangible and immediate actions, including reforming the way ‘hardship’ is assessed. Expanding the hardship fund should not remain a symbolic gesture, but a practical step towards ensuring that no student is hindered by financial constraints – as was the aim of the College when it was founded.”

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