Has scrapping hardship bursary disadvantaged UCL’s worst-off students?

In a year when UCL accommodations are less accessible to the most financially insecure students due to the scrapping of the Accommodation Bursary and Hardship Fund, UCL now appears to be trying to curb the activities of Cut the Rent.

Whilst attempting to organise an event for Max Rayne and Ifor Evans students, Cut the Rent organisers allege that they were instructed by UCL that they ‘were not allowed to doorknock, flyer, poster or even contacting [sic] any resident of the halls about our event.’ The activist group believes UCL is stifling their free speech.

Cut the Rent organisers claim that UCL is undermining their ability to campaign at Max Rayne and Ifor Evans by stifling their free speech.

Responding to the allegation, a UCL spokesperson stated: ‘a request by UCL Cut the Rent to hold an event at one of our Halls on 19 November 2018 was approved and went ahead as planned. Given this, we do not recognise UCL Cut the Rent’s version of events.’

UCL always had the right to control Cut the Rent in this manner so why decide to this year? If last year’s deal with Cut the Rent is any indication, UCL seem unwilling to make real concessions. Despite Cut the Rent describing the arrangement as ‘a significant improvement,’ it raises rent for most, makes small cuts for a few and results in costs shooting up for UCL’s poorest.

Scrapping the Accommodation Bursary and Hardship Fund

At the beginning of this academic year, UCL scrapped the Hardship Fund and Accommodation Bursary, instead lowering rent on some rooms in UCL accommodation, benefiting a larger number of students but disadvantaging those with the greatest financial need.

In March 2018, UCL and UCL Cut The Rent released a joint statement, announcing that the Hardship Fund and Accommodation Bursary would no longer be available from the 2018/19 academic year onwards. These were established to offer financial aid to students struggling to cover accommodation costs.

In the statement, UCL noted that the £600,000 in savings made by cutting the bursary and fund would be used to lower the rent for the cheapest 17% of rooms in Max Rayne and Ifor Evans Halls by 4%, and to continue freezing rent on the next cheapest 14% of rooms across UCL accommodation.

UCL also increased the proportion of rooms costing £5677 or less a year from 25% to 34%. However, many of these will still exceed the basic loan of £5654 given to students in London.

Despite the decrease in rent on cheaper rooms, students most in need of financial relief, and those who would previously have benefited from the bursary and fund, are worse off. 481 students accessed the bursary last year, receiving a mean average of £1241.40 per student.

This academic year, the cheapest bed available to students in UCL accommodation is priced at £3813.81 per year, down from £4015.83 last year.

However, had the students received the average bursary amount last year, they would have had to contribute only £2774.43. Now, even with the reduction in rent, students will have to pay almost £1000 more for the cheapest rooms available than if they had access to the bursary.

A number of students will benefit from the increase of 9% of bed spaces available below £5677 per year, but with a 3–4% increase on rent on all other rooms, those most in need of financial support will be disadvantaged by the change in rent and the abolition of the Hardship Fund and Accommodation Bursary.

Access to the bursary was notoriously bureaucratic, but still, this huge price-hike for UCL’s poorest students has the potential to do great harm with negligible financial benefit to the university. Perhaps UCL is more interested in the good PR of making sweeping cuts to accommodation fees than offering help to those who need it the most.

Sophia Robinson
Cartoon: Darcy Bounsall
Image credit: UCL Digital Media, 2018

This article appeared in CG Issue 64.