The thirty-six colleges of Cambridge University have all, en-masse, decided to withdraw from the Universities UK (UUK) accommodation code of practice. By walking away from this code they have forfeited their exemption from having their accommodation licensed and regulated by Cambridge City Council. According to the UUK’s information officer Susan Bradley the colleges’ de-registration will be effective from October 2010 *.
I am concerned that the interests of those who live in college accommodation are at risk of being adversely affected by this move. However I see the potential, if the City Council introduce their own code of practice and actively seek better standards within the sector, for the situation to vastly improve. In the three years or so where the colleges were signed up to the UUK code there was a noticeable improvement in fairness, openness and transparency relating particularly to the allocation, and costs of college accommodation in Cambridge. There was also an assurance during that time that basic safeguards were in place during proceedings for settling disputes; for example allowing students to be represented.
When the UUK code came in I felt it was a good start but could have gone much further, hopefully the move to City Council regulation will not be a step backwards. Regulation moving to a local level, directed by democratically elected councillors might well empower Cambridge students, and front line research staff, and give them an extra route of influence over their university and colleges in this key area.
If Cambridge University colleges were to be regulated in just the same way as other Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) I suspect many of their rooms would be condemned, for example, on the basis of a lack of provision of adequate cooking and washing facilities. My view is that no exemption from the rules ought be applied for rooms which are let for more than say thirty weeks a year. I can though see an argument that rooms for students only spending a few weeks in Cambridge to get a Masters, or spending just twenty four weeks or so per year here as an undergraduate need not have access to as many or as full cooking facilities as demanded for other licensed HMOs and exemptions could be justified there.
Junior academics, graduate students and college staff (including on occasion the most junior) find themselves living in college accommodation all year round, often without practical access to meals provided within the college. I think it is wrong that such individuals living in the city have not in the past benefited from the same standards and safeguards we require for say those who find themselves homeless and for whom the city pays for bed and breakfast accommodation. At the moment the HMO legislation applies to the B&Bs used for accommodation but not the university accommodation. The colleges’ decision to opt for City Council regulation of their accommodation will hopefully redress this.
Examples of Safeguards I would like to see in a Cambridge City Council code of practice:
- Require the repayment of deposits within a month of the tenant leaving the accommodation (it has been reported such a provision is to be in a future draft of the UUK code)
- Require colleges to have room licence agreements which they openly publish to prospective students and require them to abide by the terms of their licence agreements. (Open publication was a powerful requirement of the UUK code of practice)
- Require publication of policies for setting rents and charges and allocating rooms. (Openness can prevent – or at least enable the identification of – bribery and corruption).
- Ensure all accommodation related charges, including “Kitchen Fixed Charges”, deposits, and utility charges are made clear in advance, and in public.
- Set caps for fines, charges or punishments which the colleges can make with respect to accommodation related damage or disciplinary action.
- Set a time limit on accommodation related disciplinary action. eg. within a week for summary punishments, and within a month for panel decisions.
- Have a system allowing appeals against disciplinary decisions; particularly with respect to summary decisions made by individual members of staff acting alone.
- Introduce a whistle-blowing policy to protect those highlighting accommodation related problems.
- Forbid the waiving of college rules intended to keep accommodation safe eg. allowing candles and cooking appliances in student rooms.
- Require a certain provision of showers instead of allowing the bathroom requirements to be met by either the provision of a bath or shower.
Many further items could be derived from the UUK COP, and best practices could be picked from the various licence agreements within Cambridge colleges (sharing best practice between colleges being something the University is reluctant to do – but here the council could step in.)
I realise that to some those might appear unnecessary as it might be hard to imagine elements of the University of Cambridge behaving in such a way as to require such safeguards. But in my experience, and having talked to current students I think they are very much required. My old college is still holding the deposit I paid it in 2001; it will return it to me only if I leave the city of Cambridge (terms I signed up to, but have been lobbying to try and get removed for my successors). Colleges still evict students, contrary to their licence agreements, and without due notice for events such as May Balls – something which when it happens completely unexpectedly to Masters students in the days running up to the submission of their dissertation can be very disruptive and distracting.
I have experienced a member of college staff responsible for signing a room licence agreement on behalf of a college be presented with the fact the college is breaching the contract only to respond – showing a complete lack of personal integrity – to say that if the college abides by the agreement isn’t a matter for him. One underlying problem is related to the adage that academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so low. In Cambridge colleges, unlike other universities, often accommodation matters are not dealt with by professionals but by academics and the power academics have over typically relatively poor students when they can for example waive rents for a period of time provides a great temptation for abuse of position; especially in the absence of any safeguards or realistic likelihood of being held to account.
Colleges Blame Cost of Regulation for Abandoning UUK Code
The 2008/9 report on the operation of the UUK code of practice stated:
The Governance Board, having agreed an approach tailored to the particular circumstances of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, regrets to report that the Cambridge Colleges have withdrawn from the Code of Practice. After a great deal of discussion, they concluded that they are faced with excessive administrative and cost burdens due to the peculiar circumstances of local authority and external audit demands. They felt that this meant they were subject to three overlapping monitoring/audit regimes, two of which (the council and external auditors) promise significant extra costs.
As UUK are not subject to Freedom of Information legislation they have been able to refuse my request for any further explanation of the position and the college’s reasoning behind their decision to quit the scheme. I think the fact bodies which like UUK made up by groups of organisations which themselves are subject to the FOI act are not covered is a loophole which needs closing.
What I Would Like to See The Council Do
I think the Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council would be acting in-line with their party’s principles – on the basis of which they were elected – by seeking fair, open and just arrangements for those living in Cambridge University college accommodation. I think it would be terrible if the colleges’ move to regulation by the City Council ended up being detrimental to the interests of those living in college accommodation in the city and they ought act to prevent that.
There is no evidence at the moment of any plan by the council to take any action, and I am concerned that the Liberal Democrats might do nothing rather than take the opportunity which has arisen. I have noticed a change to the council’s published guidance which now no longer mentions a blanket exemption for the colleges but provides a procedure for “written relaxation” of the rules to apparently to allow “gyp rooms” rather than kitchens (though this is unclear). It may be this procedure, issuing a raft of “relaxation notices” on request from the colleges is the only way the council intends to adapt to its new role.
- I would like to see the council place details of how it intends to regulate the college accommodation on the city council website as soon as possible.
- Details of which college accommodation, previously registered under the UUK scheme, has been licensed by the council ought be published in an easily accessible way
- Councillors ought debate the options for regulation, including a new local Code of Practice to replace the UUK code, at a council meeting. Councillors could invite students and students’ union representatives to make use of the public speaking slots at such a meeting.
- The council should encourage those colleges which are presenting misleading information on their websites – implying to prospective students reading them now that their accommodation is regulated through the institution being signed up to the UUK scheme – and ask that they point out the City Council’s role.
- The council needs to bear in mind that the next major intake of students will occur at the end of the summer and a clear regulatory regime ought be in place ASAP and well before new students arrive
I have written to Cllr Smart, Cambridge City Council’s Executive Councillor for housing asking for her views and plans and have made these suggestions to her.
The Legal Position
Part 4 of schedule 14 to the 2004 Housing Act exempts accommodation owned and managed by higher and further education institutions from treatment as Houses in Multiple Occupancy for purposes other than under part one of the housing act. However this exemption only applies to “specified” educational institutions, the Houses in Multiple Occupation (Specified Educational Establishments) (England) Regulations 2010 defines those “specified” institutions as being those which are both listed in the regulations AND are listed as bodies signed up to one of two approved codes of practice.
I think an underlying problem here is the lack of strong students’ unions within Cambridge University and its colleges. I realise there are limits to what can be achieved through the regulation of accommodation, but I believe that no, or very little regulation would be needed if the university became a truly democratic and self governing institution where students and staff members were free to express their views and participate in the running of the university. With that in place there ought be no need for external regulation; though some basic minimum criteria ought be laid down by Parliament – in an ideal world we would neither have UUK or Local Councils having to carry out this kind of regulation. If there was competition between colleges then I think that would be another driver for colleges to improve their offerings, I expect it would particularly help with things such as broadband access (some Cambridge colleges cap usage) and charges would be kept competitive without the need for regulation, and the bizarre, intrusive and inexplicable practice of a number of colleges to insist on emptying bins within student’s rooms at 8am every weekday.
- Universities UK Accommodation Code of Practice webpage.
- Cambridge City Council’s Guidance for Landlords (PDF)
- My Rejected Freedom of Information Reuest to Universities UK seeking further information.
- Web pages from Homerton, Newhall and Selwyn colleges suggesting that they are still signed up to the UUK code (I could go on with many more)
- UUK Institution List March 2010 (No Cambridge Colleges), version from Feb 06 with Cambridge college buildings listed.