A report in The Tab on Monday 14 January revealed the University of Liverpool is one of just 6 per cent of institutions imposing academic sanctions on students who fail to pay their rent for university accommodation in full and on time. Such sanctions include loss of access to libraries, Eduroam Wi-Fi, e-mail accounts and Vital.

The Competition and Markets Authority warned in 2016 against the use of such sanctions, and the Office for Students has highlighted that their use may leave universities open to legal challenge under unfair terms legislation. Such sanctions can have a negative impact on student’s academic work, with students subject to them being more likely to resit coursework or exams and less likely to the next year of study or graduate.

Many students at the University feel this approach is too harsh and that the London-prices of University halls are too high, with some commenting that the policy is ‘stupid’, ‘unnerving’ and ‘messed up’. Students subject to sanctions in previous years describe only learning of a problem when they were unable to access the libraries or internet.

687 students living in University of Liverpool accommodation in the academic year 2017/18 were faced with academic sanctions. This total of 16 per cent of students in halls is substantially higher than the national average (1.7 per cent) of students failing to pay rent.

The University of Liverpool claims to offer ‘high quality accommodation’, with most having been constructed or refurbished in the last decade. They also claim to frequently ‘benchmark pricing against comparable halls of residence at other institutions.’ However, The Times reported in July 2018 that the University of Liverpool halls of residence are some of the most expensive in the country. The most expensive rooms are cheaper than those at four London institutions as well as Bristol University, while the cheapest rooms are more expensive than the cheapest rooms of all institutions but the London School of Economics, King’s College and Imperial College.

What is the Guild doing?

The Guild has been holding a series of meetings on the issue of rent with the University. Guild President Rory Hughes says they are making progress on finding solutions to the demands of the Cut the Rent Campaign. These demands are for the University to make a real and lasting cut to rent in University halls, to establish a clear and transparent rent-setting process with maximum student support, and to introduce an accommodation strategy with impact on living standards and equality at its heart.

He says he has successfully forced the University to review its use of academic sanctions for rent arrears, which the Guild is calling on the University to end, describing it as an ‘illegal practice’.

Hughes insists rent is a separate contract to the academic side of university and that ‘the University has no right to exercise sanctions that no other landlord would have the legal right to.’ He says the University must address the underlying issue of high rent, which he says is causing one in six students in halls to fall into arrears.

The University of Liverpool says they are aware of concerns regarding accommodation costs and confirm they are in regular communication with the Guild on the issue. They describe their latest meeting on Tuesday 15 January as constructive and say they are keeping their current approach of sanctions for non-payment of residential costs under review. Additional support for students in arrears will also be a topic of discussion for the University and the Guild.

What do students have to say?

One student, who lived in Crown Place in 2016/17, describes being left in tears, feeling they had no one to turn to for advice when they were faced with academic sanctions after a problem with Student Finance. The student had received an e-mail on the Friday before being locked out of the library, Eduroam and University computers on the Monday, blocking them from their means to resolve the situation, which persisted for two weeks.

Another student, Harriet, now in third year, describes facing such sanctions for an unpaid fine she claims he hadn’t even been told about. The fine, the result of a third temporary key card, was £5. Her first knowledge of it was when her student card failed to provide access to the library, and she spent a further three days before ending up on the phone to the right people who could resolve the situation.

Sat outside the Central Teaching Hub following a Psychology exam, Harriet highlights the gap between efforts to encourage more people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to attend University and the reality on the ground where people don’t receive enough in maintenance loans to cover basic costs. She says some students on courses such as nursing and medicine have so much work to do that they can’t be expected to then get a job on top of that. In a statement to The Sphinx, the University of Liverpool highlights the £22 million in scholarships and bursaries provided to their students in the academic year 2017/18.

Ellie, also in third year, thinks the University is out of order with these academic sanctions, saying people are more likely to fail if they aren’t given support. Another Psychology student, Millie, thinks ‘it’s stupid’ and says friends elsewhere in the country paid less for student accommodation.

A group of first years think university rents are too expensive, and many of them live in private accommodation, some with Unite Students. University halls aren’t value for money, they say, although one in private halls is living with older students. They feel it isn’t fair that rent arrears should affect the academic side of university, and they suggest the University investigates each case before imposing sanctions.

Outside the Victoria Gallery and Museum, a group of medical students stop to share their views. They feel the sanctions are harsh but sympathise with the University’s need to cover costs, particularly in terms of money reinvested in newer accommodation. One suggests the University should offer better warnings and advice on how to manage money, as student loans often don’t cover rent and students have to pay for food and socialising on top of this.

The average rent at the University of Liverpool is 110 per cent of the average maintenance loan and the University made a profit of £4.9 million from ‘Residences, Conferences and Catering’ in 2017/18.

On the steps of the Sydney Jones library, one third year student, who lived in private accommodation in first year, calls the sanctions outrageous, lamenting that ‘you come here to study and they stop you studying.’ This is a view echoed by others who feel the academic and residential sides of the University are separate.

His friend, who spent first year in Melville Grove, highlights the multitude of reasons why someone might not have paid their rent on time, suggesting the University consider people’s circumstances instead of assuming they just couldn’t be bothered to pay rent. Both agree University halls are nice, with good security and maintenance, but feel people can save a lot of money by renting privately as many people do from second year.

Another student nearby sees this as an example of the University draining money from students, with the University limiting academic progress based on a student’s financial means.

In University Square, Sam, a member of Labour Students, says this is another example of marketisation of education showing that if you can’t afford to pay for education, you’re going to suffer. He believes everyone should be able to access all types of education for their whole life, from cradle to grave. Dave, also from Labour, takes the opportunity to say this is why we need a ‘radical, socialist government under Jeremy Corbyn.’

While some admit to being at fault for rent arrears, others are caught unaware. One student was faced with these sanctions in 2017/18 but claims he wasn’t at fault, only discovering the problem once access to facilities had been withdrawn. It took seven days to resolve, in which time he didn’t know what lectures to attend. His friend describes the sanctions as a ‘double stress’ unlikely to get people to pay faster.