Varsity found that the median college rent would take up 41% of a Cambridge bursary student’s income

A Varsity investigation has found disparities in rent of approximately £3,000 between the most and least expensive undergraduate colleges, and an average median yearly rent of £5,400 for undergraduate students living in college.

The investigation comes amid a growing cost-of-living crisis placing pressure on students’ finances, and criticism among the student body of planned rent increases for the next academic year (2023-24).

Homerton College provides the cheapest student accommodation, at a median cost of £4,100 a year for a 28-week lease. Students at Girton, on the other hand, face the most expensive median cost of £7,000 for a 38-week lease (the shortest available). This figure is for 2022-23, and Girton has a cohort charge policy meaning a student’s rent for three years stays the same, regardless of inflation. Selwyn College, in third place, has the most expensive 30-week lease, at a median cost of £5,900.

Using publicly available information and freedom of information requests, Varsity calculated the median yearly undergraduate rent at each college and used the shortest lease available, which largely ranged from 28 to 30 weeks (28 weeks at Homerton College, and 38 weeks at Lucy Cavendish and Girton Colleges). Varsity then added any compulsory additional charges paid by students, such as a Kitchen Fixed Charge. Postgraduate colleges were excluded from the investigation.

Varsity faced challenges in finding reliable, public data from each college. This was in part due to the discrepancies between colleges in how they structure accommodation, the accommodation provided, and the availability of information to students outside of a college. As such, these figures are an approximation.

The Cambridge SU sabbatical team commented on these difficulties, telling Varsity: “The discrepancy between college rents is appalling and the information is difficult to find online for potential applicants. [The University] needs to be clear and honest about the financial implications of living at different colleges.” They went on to raise the impact of this on prospective applicants: “Students studying at the University are paying vastly different rents; it’s simply not true that it ‘doesn’t matter what college you apply to’”

Joe Garvey, an undergraduate at Lucy Cavendish who has conducted research which assisted this investigation, and is involved in research on the impacts of high living costs on students, spoke to Varsity about these findings: “Most colleges don’t make this data publicly available, with the little that is available being incomplete, often just stating rent bands, without disclosing the number and availability of rooms… Hence why, when many have tried this in the past, they simply gave up.”

For a student on maximum SFE maintenance loan (£9,706 outside of London) and Cambridge bursary (£3,500), with a total resulting income of £13,206, rent at Homerton College would account for 35.5% of their income. Rent at Girton College would require 53%. The average median rent (£5,400) across Cambridge would take up 41% of that student’s income. This is in stark contrast to the ONS’s recommendation that accommodation qualifies as “affordable” if it takes up 30% or less of a household’s income.

The Girton JCR committee told Varsity: “High rent is an ongoing issue with college and consistently provokes discontent within the student body. The Girton rent policies are complex and, although they can provide some perks, there are significant drawbacks which the JCR are committed to addressing.”

Garvey outlined the difficult choices students are having to make as a result of these rents: “I can’t overstate how much of an impact this disparity has on student’s lives. What college you go to determines whether you can afford to go to Cambridge. Students are having to work during term or in some cases intermit, just to be able to afford food and rent. Students’ experiences couldn’t be more different: it’s not just costs, it’s whether you’re able to get funding for further education, internships, travel, sport, food and rent subsidies… With colleges working harder than ever to widen participation, many are only beginning to understand that widening participation doesn’t end at admission.”

Rent is set to increase for the 2023-24 academic year, with increases between 6-10% already announced by many colleges. This has been met with criticism from students and JCRs, including a rent strike at King’s College. The SU shared its criticisms with Varsity, stating: “The rent increases announced this year (around 10% at colleges like Selwyn, Sidney Sussex and King’s) are pricing students out of a place to live. The rent strike at King’s is a clear message that this isn’t acceptable or liveable any more.”

Additional reporting by Oscar de Wit

Girton, Lucy Cavendish, Gonville & Caius, Selwyn and Robinson Colleges and the University have been approached for comment.