Minutes of the Rent Meeting on Friday 28 May

Purpose of meeting is twofold. Firstly, going forwards, College (and specifically Tom Boden, the Head of Estates) are keen to know student opinions about what students want from College accommodation. Secondly, feedback on the accommodation letter about how individual rooms are assigned their rent.

Summary of proposal outlined in the letter given. By MCR President and General Secretary

  • Under the existing procedure, the total rent budget is decided by the Finance Committee at the start of Lent term. This sets the total amount required to be raised from all postgraduate accommodation but doesn’t specify how that total is raised. That total is sent to the MCR Executive (President, Secretary, Treasurer), along with a spreadsheet from the finance office which details what level rents were last year and available rooms. The Executive are required to decide the rents of individual rooms and return the results to the finance office. The MCR can make changes as they see fit as long as the total adds up correctly.
  • This poses some issues:
    • It means that there is an ability for a particular studentto email College with a complaint (e.g. “my rent has gone up quite a bit”) and be told that the MCR sets the rents and they should go and talk to them. While the MCR do set the rents for individual rooms, they are working within a budget. This is a zero sum game and so if total rent goes up by 3%, there’s only so much that can be done.
    • The full responsibility of setting the rent for each room should not be exclusively the MCR Exececutive’s
  • The Proposal changes little in practical sense but a lot in formal sense. The process would be a collaborative one between the MCR Exec and the College officers led by the Senior Postgraduate Tutor (Liz DeMarrais). This means that the College will have oversight on what the MCR is doing and that the College will sign-off on the rents. This allows Liz to act as a ‘buck stops here’ authority to deal with complaints and concerns. Importantly, the proposal doesn’t seek to remove the input the MCR has but to formalise the process and make College take responsibility as the authority.
  • This year, the Exec followed the procedure set out in the proposal as closely as possible. This is the basis for the proposal to formalise what happened: (There was not time to formalise the process before the discussion this year as the Exec only took office in January):
    • There was a meeting between the Exec and Liz DeMarrais (Senior Postgraduate Tutor), Shelley Surtees (Domestic Bursar) and Rebecca Sawalmeh (Postgraduate Administrator).
    • Every room was discussed to decide on the correct band for it.
    • There was a discussion about how the price of each band would change.
    • The Executive (led by the President) then adjusted the price of each band to ensure the total was as close to the requirement as possible. The final prices were agreed by Liz DeMarrais before being sent out to the student body.

Comments from MCR Members present. These have been anonymised as far as possible.

  • From the viewpoint of residents of the Wolfson Flats and Maisonettes, it wasn’t felt that the College cares for the students but that it is out to make money. Students have felt a bit like cash-cows, especially around the historic 13% increase in rent and the global rent increase during a pandemic. This opinion was supported directly by a second student – who commented on the difficultly of such a rise in rent within the context of fixed scholarships/stipends, and that it was very difficult for families – and widely agreed upon by those present. It was noted that very few of the concerns of the students make it to College level committees. Residents of the maisonettes also reported that there was no communication around this increase (e.g. no email to say that rent was going up by 13%).
  • One student said that there is a lack of understanding from the College about the circumstances of families. Raising children is very expensive (e.g. £3000 a term nursery fees) and this means spare income is very tight. The narrative from College is that student parents ordinarily have a partner who supports them by having a job but that partner has a lot of childcare responsibilities, limiting the time available to get a job. In the worst-case scenarios, this pressure could lead to students abandoning their courses. This view was supported by other students present at the meeting.
  • Several different proposals were suggested around how to make rent fairer and any rent increases more manageable, especially within the context of families:
    • Include factors about each student’s circumstances (like type of scholarship, other means, other people dependent on the student’s income etc.) when assigning rent, not just factors about the type of accommodation.
    • Limit the amount of rent that can be charged to be X% of the standard doctoral stipend.
    • A system whereby couples/single tenants pay a higher price than families with children for living in the maisonettes. This idea has been stated as infeasible by College previously but we are aware the College do charge different rent depending on the categories of tenant (Graduate, Fellow, Non-student, temporary tenancy).
    • A family subsidy given by the College, in a similar way to child tax relief given by the government.
    • Having multi-year agreements between the College and students (especially families who often stay on-site for the duration of their degree and for whom it is much harder to rent in the private market, rendering them captive of whatever decisions the College makes). This would allow students to budget for the duration of their studies.
  • It was generally felt by members present that the hardship funding given by College is difficult to access and requires a lot of hoops to be jumped through. One student said that they eventually were given hardship funding, which was relatively good, but the process required lots of emailing and a letter to be sent which was very tough for them. Another student said that they could have done with hardship funding previously but gave up as the process was so unappealing and they ended up juggling various credit cards to get through their temporary funding issues. It was generally felt that there was a disconnect between the Fellows (in their roles as Tutors) and the Finance department around how College should use its money. The current situation in College was compared unfavourably to another College in the university of a similar size and means. It was also briefly mentioned that the money received from conferencing doesn’t appear to benefit the students. It was recognised that Liz DeMarrais has worked on the hardship funding issue, that the role of the Finance Tutor has been widened and that there is a new commitment to getting back to students within two weeks. It was viewed as a good opportunity for the MCR President to touch base with Liz on this and see if improvements made can be more widely communicated to students.
  • The issue of the £1500 advanced deposit was raised as being crippling for some students. One student reported having to borrow on a credit card to pay rent as the College were unwilling to allow for the advanced deposit to be used in against their rent on a short-term basis. It was noted that the system is changing from next year and has recently passed through the Finance Committee to one where the term’s rent is paid in advance, with a deposit of £250 (note, these changes apply to rooms; flats and studios operate like private rentals with a 1 month deposit and rent is paid monthly in advance). It was reported that the rationale behind the advanced deposit ​might have been based on cases of students who have left Cambridge at the end of their studies to return overseas while owing the College money. Due to issues raised by MCR Committee Members at meetings, the College have agreed to communicate that they are willing to be flexible around the advanced deposit in cases where it is difficult for students to pay the amount upfront.
  • On the subject of the proposal for formalising how rent is assigned, one student raised the issue that the MCR Executive are often in their early to mid 20s and so aren’t necessarily best placed to understand the issues faced by the wider MCR community. There was broad consensus that there should be wider consultation with the MCR community around rents and accommodation, and that the College itself should have a greater oversight in the rent setting process. However, it was felt to be important that the MCR retains its input into the rent setting process. It was also noted that the reasoning behind the rent prices of each room should be documented to facilitate greater continuity between MCR Committees. The MCR President said that he would begin drafting a paper to go before College Council, hopefully in July, and that this would go before the TGM later this term.
  • A general discussion on the current banding system was had during which a wide array of points were raised but no general consensus was reached. The points included:
    • That the current band system with its limited number of options is inadequate to assign rents to such a heterogeneous group of rooms.
    • A proposal to move to a formula based system for rent, in which rent is determined by area with add-ons for en-suite, recently refurbished house, good location etc. (It was noted that the undergraduate rooms are assigned their rent on a similar basis).
    • A slight counter to the proposal was that the subjectivity is still present, just shifted from deciding what band a room should be in to deciding how much an en-suite should be worth. It could also be difficult to gather the requisite information initially to set-up such a system. It was however recognised that this system would make this more transparent and enable correction over time.
    • That some rooms are now priced the same even though one is demonstrably better/worse. As an example, two of the Wolfson Maisonettes (27 and 35) are slightly smaller but cost the same as the rest.
    • It was raised that there were characteristics of rooms which aren’t adequately captured in the data provided in a spreadsheet each year. However, it was agreed that this was also a problem with the current system and that any system needs to be complemented by notes that explain anomalies.
    • It was raised that the current system allows people certainty of the rent but it was agreed that both systems afford this to students.