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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

Homelessness and higher education

Traditional student life has a romantic quality that can sometimes capture the zeitgeist of an age. 

In the late 19th century, Puccini’s opera La Bohème presented students starving in a garret room, suffering in their quest for truth and art. The story was inspired by Puccini’s own experiences of poverty while a student at the Milan Conservatory.

In the 1950s, Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim satirised the stifling conformity and pretensions of campus life at a provincial university, including its austere lodgings, or ‘digs’. By the 1980s, the focus was the rented university house, with student tenants acted by Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson in the television show The Young Ones. It was anarchic but egalitarian, and oddly optimistic. Perhaps we should ask ourselves how composers, novelists or scriptwriters might capture the realities of students’ living conditions today? They might portray a young woman undergraduate queuing for hours at a lettings agency to view an overpriced student house with mould and dangerous electric wiring. Or a young man bedding down for the night on a course-mate’s sofa because he has nowhere else to sleep. Or an international student sleeping in the university library, because it is warmer than the house he shares, 30 miles from campus.

Stories such as these have been the focus of a glut of media headlines, particularly around the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year, as excess demand for student accommodation in university cities and towns coincided with a contraction in the supply of private rented accommodation for students. A variety of causes have been at work. The rapid expansion of some universities since the removal of student number controls in England in 2015 outpaced their ability to extend their own housing stock or to signpost students to privately owned, purpose-built student accommodation within a reasonable distance of campus. This excess demand worsened when, following the cancellation of exams during the Covid pandemic, teacher-awarded grades for A levels and equivalent qualifications led to a surge in university admissions in 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, changes to the private rented-housing sector prompted some landlords in cities to withdraw from student housing and instead let properties to professional people seeking house shares, offer short lets on Airbnb or sell up. 

We should be very clear that the data show that university students are significantly less – not more – likely to experience homelessness than young people of similar age in the general population. There is a close correlation between homelessness and disadvantage, and a large proportion of students are from better-off families: 71 per cent of privately educated young people achieve a degree by the age of 26, compared with 17 per cent of children from the poorest fifth of families. 

The scarcity, poor quality and cost of student housing should command attention from university leaders at a time when they face pressure to widen participation in higher education, not just by broadening their admissions but by supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds to succeed at and beyond university. And yet there is little robust research on prevalence and solutions to homelessness and housing precarity among UK students, while such data as exist are of poor quality. One of the few studies, involving a focus group and interviews with 16 students at a post-1992 university, found far-reaching impacts on the education and wellbeing of those students who experienced homelessness. It also found that student homelessness was underreported and often hidden, with some students sleeping on floors, staying with friends, or living in hostels or temporary council accommodation. Student unions periodically publish figures on the prevalence of experience of homelessness among students, but too often these are drawn from open online surveys with self-selecting samples. Universities, particularly modern universities with higher numbers of students from low-income households, should consider how they could do more to track the housing status of their students in a way that is deeper than a standard student-records management system. For example, light-touch but scientifically designed periodic surveys on wellbeing and housing stability should yield important insights; student unions could support in disseminating surveys and enhancing students’ engagement. Universities should deliver timely bespoke financial support or other assistance to students who find themselves homeless. Better still, they should develop data-screening tools to identify students who are at higher risk of homelessness, and develop interventions that prevent homelessness from occurring.

There is, however, a wider, deeper and more radical role that universities could play in relieving and preventing homelessness beyond their student communities. This is especially true for universities that aspire to play a role in civic leadership in the places where they operate, by improving social cohesion as well as local economic and cultural life. Addressing homelessness can and should be an important element in coordinating efforts to level up or iron out inequalities and broaden opportunities within places. Seeking to reduce levels of rough sleeping in urban centres is perhaps the most visible example, but homelessness is a much larger and more multifaceted problem than rough sleeping alone.

The core argument for why universities should engage in ending homelessness is this: university cities and larger towns have higher homelessness, both in absolute numbers and per head of the population. This is not a coincidence. The presence of a university in a place shapes the local housing economy, creating higher demand for low-cost rented housing, which pushes up rents and house prices, making these less affordable for people on low incomes. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) analyses data from its census by dividing areas in England and Wales into 15 groups, one of which is university towns and cities. We can analyse their rates of homelessness by looking at their rates per head of their population of applications for homelessness support, rough sleeping and households placed in temporary accommodation to avoid homelessness (Table 1). 

Local authorityApplications for homelessness supportAssessed as at risk of homelessness per 1,000Assessed as homeless per 1,000 Number of people rough sleepingRate of people rough sleeping per 100kNumber of households in TANumber of households in TA per 1,000
Brighton and Hove1,683-4.887.635218.71,64512.88
Kingston upon Thames3822.642.692716.090012.83

We can then compare these on a per-head basis with a similar number of towns of roughly the same size, but without a university (Table 2). 

Local authorityNumber of total applicationsAssessed as at risk of homelessness per 1,000Assessed as homeless per 1,000 Number of people rough sleepingRate of people rough sleeping per 100kNumber of households in TANumber of households in TA per 1,000
Milton Keynes1,9785.9211.75165.58317.61

We see that the number of households in temporary accommodation is more than three times as high in university towns as in non-university towns (8.62 versus 2.70 per 1,000). Similarly, rates of rough sleeping are three times higher (17.45 versus 5.8 per 100,000) in university towns. The exception is for people assessed as being at risk of homelessness: this is slightly lower in university towns (5.90 versus 7 per 1,000). But for assessments of people experiencing homelessness, the rate is again clearly higher than in non-university towns (9.01 versus 6.71 per 1,000).

ONS analysis of characteristics of university towns and cities suggests why. One reason is a younger population profile, with a median age of 32 years. Another is a larger stock of flats and rental accommodation than in other areas. Clearly a university, especially one with a larger proportion of residential undergraduates and postgraduate students, generates higher local demand for low-cost fixed-term accommodation. Academics and other university staff also create demand for housing, including lower-cost and often rental accommodation for early-career academics. Higher-education institutions, especially civic universities interested in enhancing the prosperity and social cohesion of the places where they operate, ought to be concerned at this negative impact on affordability of housing for people on low incomes. This is brought into sharp focus by the instances where land has been targeted for development by privately owned providers of student flats, rather than as social or affordable housing for local people – to residents’ anger. There are many examples, such as in Manchester, Bath and Edinburgh. Universities, particularly institutions that prize their role of civic leadership in their communities, should worry at the frequency and often ferocity of what are often called ‘town versus gown’ tensions.

Universities could deepen their understanding of this dynamic by commissioning research into the relationship between universities and their local housing economy and how negative impacts might be redressed.

There are also practical steps that universities can take as local and regional civic actors to tackle homelessness in their communities. They can use their role as employers to offer work to people with current or recent experience of homelessness – not solely unskilled or entry-level jobs, but roles with opportunities for development and advancement. They can convene the volunteering capacity of their staff and student bodies and make efforts, and perhaps offer incentives, to target voluntary work towards evidence-based ways to prevent homelessness among at-risk groups, rather than offering short-term relief that can sustain people in homelessness without offering solutions that change their circumstances.

There is a further unique role that universities can play, in their role as educators. Two dynamics act as powerful obstacles to ending homelessness for good. One is a lack of high-quality causal research to identify policies and practices that can demonstrate clear evidence of impact. The second is public misunderstanding of the issue, which is compounded by stigma and stereotyping. Much of the public money allocated to homelessness services goes on interventions that have not been subject to robust independent evaluation. Indeed, funding streams often overlap in geographic areas, so it is extremely difficult to trace outcomes, whether positive or negative, to a single programme. Some university academics and departments do conduct excellent research to identify and quantify potential solutions to homelessness, but they are too few in number and too small in scale. Of 690 studies to quantify the effectiveness of interventions to relieve or prevent homelessness, just 65 were conducted in the UK, of which only nine met the highest standard of confidence. 

Much more robust quantitative research is needed into what works to prevent and relieve homelessness. Individual academics and teams have a role in scoping and designing research, but this challenge ought really to be directed at funding councils and other commissioners of research, including government.

Homelessness seems to generate more misconceptions and false narratives than almost any other area of social policy. Platitudes such as ‘Homelessness can happen to anyone’ and ‘We are all two pay cheques away from homelessness’ are not true – and are profoundly unhelpful, even if they are often well-meant. Evidence clearly shows that instances of homelessness are heavily associated with certain experiences, especially trauma, adversity and poverty in childhood. Risks of homelessness are also elevated among certain groups, notably people who spent part of their childhood in care. One study found that the probability of homelessness by the age of 30 is just 0.6 per cent for a well-educated white man from an advantaged family, but 71.2 per cent for a woman of mixed race with children who experienced childhood poverty, left school at 16 and has had spells of unemployment.

Universities are well placed to nullify these false narratives by embedding evidence-based teaching in curriculum areas that are relevant to homelessness. These are unlikely to be degree modules in themselves, but will be within areas of study in courses. Nevertheless, the subject has relevance to a larger number of degrees whose graduates may encounter homelessness in a professional capacity: Housing Studies, Social Work, Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Law, Architecture, Education, Theology, Criminology and Sociology are examples. Lecturers should take care that their references to homelessness are grounded in good evidence and reliable data, that they use neutral rather than pejorative language and that course materials, including slides and website pages, do not stigmatise individuals or reinforce stereotypes. How often have we seen a reference to homelessness accompanied by a photograph of an older man sleeping in a doorway, often with a bottle at his elbow and a cardboard sign used for begging? 

A great example of leadership on the issue of homelessness has been that of the University of Glasgow, which in 2021 set up an initiative called Road to Home, to explore homelessness in Glasgow and to make a contribution towards ending it. It has commissioned research, including into student homelessness, hosted lectures and developed resources to deepen understanding of the issue, convened volunteering activities, helped to design research-informed training for people working in homelessness and developed curriculum modules about homelessness for teaching in Scottish schools. 

If more university leaders consider initiatives on homelessness, they need not do so purely from a perspective of altruism. In addition to fulfilling the role of a civic university, those who do this may find that they strengthen their university’s appeal with students, potential applicants and their staff by living out values of civic engagement that resonate within their academic community. Perhaps we might yet hope that, a decade from now, novelists, composers or television directors who imagine the lives and living conditions of students will have new images in their minds. Maybe they’ll portray students in safe and stable housing they can afford, where they can live and learn in the way they choose, in university communities where rough sleeping and temporary housing are consigned to the past. If this is so, then university leaders, researchers, lecturers, non-academic staff and students will be able to look back on the role they have played and be proud.

Greg Hurst

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