The controversial Queens' postgrad accomodation MEG BYROM FOR VARSITY

Picture this: it’s early August, the middle of the summer holidays, and you’re away with your family, having finished your undergraduate degree in June. You’re due to start your master’s degree at Cambridge in October, but there’s plenty of time until then, so for now you’re just basking in the summer sun. Then you receive an email. Your college is unable to offer you accommodation, and you will need to look for something yourself.

This is the situation I, and numerous other incoming postgraduate students, found ourselves in last summer. At the time, Varsity ran an article criticising my college, Christ’s, for its failure to accommodate so many of its graduate students. However, the same situation was being replicated all over Cambridge, with numerous colleges informing their graduate students of who would (or wouldn’t) be receiving accommodation for the next year. Cue collective panic, as students scrambled to Rightmove, the University Accommodation Service, and Cambridge’s smattering of student accommodation blocks to fight for the handful of private rental accommodation Cambridge has to offer.

“Students who weren’t offered college accommodation were thrust into a dog-eat-dog game of housing roulette”

Cambridge’s housing market has become notorious in recent years for being one of the most expensive and competitive in the country, ranking as the 4th most expensive city in the UK for first time buyers. Students who weren’t offered college accommodation were thrust into a dog-eat-dog game of housing roulette, where a viewing on a property was akin to winning the Lottery, and some homes were already let before they were even put on Rightmove. Once a viewing had been secured, money would have to be shelled out on travel to and accommodation in Cambridge, only to find that the property had been let to one of the dozens of other students competing for the same place. The situation was even worse for international students, who were limited in their options by many estate agents’ requirements of a UK-based guarantor and viewing before renting, which can be financially and practically impossible for those living halfway across the world.

But the most frustrating part of this whole experience for me wasn’t the attempts to arrange a last-minute £100 train journey to Cambridge for a hastily-booked viewing, or the persistent question of what I’d do if I couldn’t find somewhere in time. No – it was the adverts I received on all my social media accounts for student accommodation blocks in other cities, with rooms or apartments which were readily available and easily bookable, without any of the faff of compulsory viewings or bidding against other students. Each time, I’d click on the advert, full of hope and excitement, only to find that it was for accommodation in Liverpool, or Exeter, or (most upsettingly of all) Oxford.

It was at this point that it became clear to me that Cambridge had a specific, local problem with student accommodation. If even Oxford – another ludicrously expensive city with two universities – could have student rentals still available in August, why was trying to find somewhere to live in Cambridge as challenging as trying to find a STEM student on Sidgwick Site?

“Cambridge has fallen victim to the wider national housing crisis”

Part of the issue can be explained by the fact that Cambridge has fallen victim to the wider national housing crisis. The selling off of council houses, unrestricted landlordism and the rise of second home ownership have all contributed to a national housing shortage in which property prices have increased by 73% over the last 10 years. Cambridge is also part of London’s commuter belt, meaning that its housing market is under even more pressure than those in other areas of the country.

But there also seems to be a local issue within the city and the university. The local council has recently come into conflict with Queens’ College over a proposed graduate accommodation block at Owlstone Croft, which has been campaigned against due to concerns about ecology and the potential impact on a local primary school. The dispute seems indicative of a piecemeal approach to student housing, in which individual colleges are responsible for proposing their own buildings, putting them in conflict with the council and local communities. This also results in huge differences in student accommodation provisions between colleges, with very little standardisation between colleges of the number of students provided with accommodation or the rent charged. While I was looking for my accommodation, I was struck that there were only 11 properties available to me on the University Accommodation Service, several of which were either unsuitable (one was actually outside Cambridge) or already let. An expansion of the University Accommodation Service to take on some of the colleges’ accommodation responsibilities might result in a more cohesive approach and prevent students whose colleges are unable to accommodate them from falling between the cracks.


Mountain View

The importance of making Cambridge home

For the sake of future graduate students, and of anybody living in Cambridge, I hope a solution to Cambridge’s student rental crisis can be reached. Those looking to rent in Cambridge are met with hugely inflated prices and drastically limited options, and the dependence of postgraduate students on the local housing market only makes the strain even worse. Solving Cambridge’s student accommodation won’t fix the city’s broken housing market, but it will make a good first step.