July 21, 2022

Could universities do more to prevent homelessness?

Universities should do more to track and prevent homelessness among their students and can play a significant, wider role in supporting efforts to end all forms of homelessness, our latest policy paper published in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Institiute argues.

It says universities have done too little to collect data on rates of homelessness among UK students or conduct research into its nature, causes and potential solutions.

The paper says it is ‘striking’ how little robust data exists on homelessness among current and former students, despite anecdotal evidence and some snapshot surveys suggesting that some universities have underestimated levels of ‘hidden homelessness’ such as sofa surfing among their students. It has been published jointly by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Centre for Homelessness Impact.

It also points to higher than expected numbers of students who were unable to leave university campuses or accommodation during the COVID-19 lockdowns as they were estranged from their families or had nowhere to go. A large survey by the National Union of Students in 2020 found a similar picture.

The paper, written by Greg Hurst, a former Education Editor at The Times, and now at the Centre for Homelessness Impact, calls on universities and higher education bodies to research and track homelessness among current students, former students who quit their studies and recent graduates. This could be done with light touch surveys, undertaken in partnership with student unions, snapshot national polling commissioned from specialist market research companies, and adding a question on housing status to the optional bank of questions in the National Student Survey.

Watch the video below to hear more from Greg Hurst about the importance of this policy paper.

The University of Glasgow has announced plans to research homelessness among its students.

Those students who are identified as experiencing or at risk of homelessness should receive targeted support such as short-term financial assistance or access to accommodation especially at the start of the long summer vacation. Some universities might improve their continuation rates by doing so, it argues.      

Students are, the paper emphasises, less likely than people of their age in the general population to experience homelessness, which is closely associated with poverty and adversity in childhood and UK students should also have access to maintenance loans and other support. 

Nevertheless, with 2.7 million students in the UK, a drop-out rate of 5.3 per cent and a continued policy focus to widen participation by bringing more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education, it argues that universities should treat student homelessness more seriously.

The paper also urges universities to do more to end homelessness through their research and teaching, and in their civic roles as major and often dominant actors in the local economies and communities in which they operate.

The latest policy paper published in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Institute argues that more could be done by universities to prevent homelessness.

Greg Hurst, from the Centre for Homelessness Impact and formerly Education Editor at The Times, said: 

‘Widening access to higher education means broadening the composition of a university’s student body and, therefore, admitting more students whose past experiences and circumstances mean they face a higher risk of homelessness.

‘As we experience a surge in inflation to beyond 9 per cent this is likely to mean that from autumn more students struggle to pay higher food and energy costs alongside their rent. Many universities could and should ask themselves if they are doing enough to prevent homelessness among their current and recent students.’ 

Professor Mary Stuart, Emeritus Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lincoln and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University, Australia, said: 

‘It is important to recognise that universities can provide some parts of the solution for some people affected by homelessness.

‘There is some effective work that universities already do tackling homelessness but the value of this piece is that it contributes to an emerging debate about students and housing which most universities would recognise is an area of concern.’

The prevalence of homelessness tends to be higher in university towns and cities, in some cases strikingly so. 

A comparative analysis for the paper between homelessness in towns and cities with universities and homelessness in large towns without a university illustrates this. It looks at homelessness trends in seven local authorities that have universities with traditional residential study models: Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Kingston upon Thames, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Reading. These trends are compared with the pattern in seven of the largest towns in England without a university: Mansfield, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Wakefield, Warrington, Wigan and Wirral. In the university towns and cities there are consistently higher absolute numbers and rates of applications for homelessness assistance, rough sleeping and households in temporary accommodation.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that university towns and cities include a younger population and residents who are more likely to live in flats and to rent rather than own their accommodation and therefore have a larger rental market. High local housing costs is a contributory although not a prime cause of homelessness.

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