Is it Fun to Stay at the YMCA?

October 2019/20 Cover Story

Written by Genevieve Redgrave and Emily Johnstone

University, for any young person, is one of the most daunting experiences they will face in life. For the large majority of the student body, this is the first time they have lived away from home, making every aspect of this new life an unknown. Potentially the biggest grey cloud looms over the prospect of living with your peers which forms the basis of every student’s university experience. These relationships, as well as the safety net of this accommodation can make or break your time at any university. Yet this uncertainty can only spiral when it is revealed over a phone call merely a week before the planned move in date that the university has oversubscribed all of its accommodation. For some University of Bath Freshers, instead of moving into university-owned halls, they were in fact going to be moving into the YMCA. 

“Accommodation can make or break your time at any university” 

Due to conflicting statements from students, University representatives and Freshers’ Week Captains, reports of the number of students affected has ranged from 16 to 25 individuals. According to a University of Bath spokesperson, the true number of students that would have to stay in the YMCA was unknown up until Arrivals day. The University alleges that as a number of students often fail to turn up without prior communication, a true reflection of the oversubscription of rooms could not be accounted for. Additionally, multiple students withdraw at the last minute or confirm their place late which suggests the University could not accurately confirm exactly how many students would be needing rooms prior to move in. However, in order for the YMCA rooms to be booked, the University must have been aware in advance that they had enrolled more students than the available number of rooms.

The decision-making behind which students would be placed into this temporary accommodation remains unclear. It was reported to Bath Time that the majority of students affected were late applicants, but with record numbers of students going through clearing, it is likely that there were many more students who were in the same position but were instead provided University-owned accommodation. For one fresher, her status as a vulnerable student seemed to go unnoticed when she was placed in temporary housing despite being a recipient of the Estrangement Bursary. 

The YMCA was reportedly selected due to its ability to house the students in individual rooms which according to those who stayed, consisted of one small bed, a wardrobe and a sink. On one floor there was merely one toilet and two showers available to be shared between ten rooms. No cooking facilities were provided except a toaster and microwave in a communal area which were to be shared across the 200-room facility. The University, alongside a yearly bus pass, provided a £70 food and drink credit per week but according to multiple students, they struggled to use the credit and found it inconvenient to travel to campus at every meal time to be able to use it. This resulted in many of them having to fund takeaways for most meals throughout their stay, which became an unsustainable expense made worse by student finance not yet coming through. 

According to a University spokesperson, the high security measures within the YMCA were a major factor in their decision to house students there. They explained that there was 24 hour staff on duty as well as extensive CCTV around the facility. Yet, the students we spoke to explained their security concerns about their time there. Despite being reassured by the University that all students would be on the same floor, it soon became clear that this was not the case. For the only two female students in the YMCA, they said this made them feel very unsafe especially when having to share toilet facilities, despite same-sex bathrooms being available in the building. At various points throughout their stay, students had to return their keys and pick them up at other points without any form of identification. This resulted in wrong room keys being handed out and individuals accidentally walking into the wrong rooms. 

Another student has reported feeling extremely frightened due to routine appearances of people, he believed to be YMCA staff, entering his room at random intervals without knocking. Allegedly, this was to ensure that he was alone due to a policy of one person to a room at any one point. In a nerve-wracking situation, this constant feeling of being watched without personal security did nothing but add to the discomfort felt by these students. One individual reported that he was unable to sleep during his stay in the YMCA because strangers were drunk and shouted outside of his window at night. As the University has explained, the YMCA was used because it does not have a curfew for its guests which gave the students similar degrees of freedom offered in university-owned accommodation. However, the level of insecurity felt by some, meant they did not leave their room at night, let alone leave the building. The students also reported that some individuals loitered outside of the rear entrance which made them feel unsafe, ultimately meaning that the freshers soon became creatures of isolation. 

“the freshers soon became creatures of isolation” 

Despite adversity sometimes being the quickest route to community, the continuous theme we have heard from those affected has been loneliness. According to the University and SU representatives, a Facebook group was set up for those staying in the temporary accommodation. A meet-up in Flo’s Cafe in Virgil Building was also organised to help students get to know each other. It is unclear, however, whether this was communicated sufficiently as multiple students have claimed that the University made no efforts to integrate the group. One resident said that throughout her time in the YMCA, she only met four other students and claimed that in her experience, the worst part was “being alone and not knowing anyone”. 

The YMCA, as the UK’s largest youth housing charity, provides accommodation to young people for a variety of reasons from holiday trips to those in need. This understandably made it almost impossible to distinguish between a normal resident and another unlucky Bath student. In a new city, with no other connections or prior friendships, this could only have exacerbated feelings of isolation. 

Freshers’ Week is set to be the bonding experience of every new student’s year. This opportunity was stripped from the students who were seemingly far away from the excitement happening for other freshers. One student we spoke to said the hardest part of it all was missing out “on the opportunity to create friendships and memories during Freshers’ Week which is invaluable”. Despite the University reportedly sending Freshers’ Captains to the YMCA, at no point was free entry into the events offered, although a wristband could have been purchased early in the week. The Community Coordinator for the Students’ Union emphasised that she understands that students have missed out on integration amongst their new flat. However, she believes that in the long run, Hall Rep events are key to integration. 

For those that stayed in the YMCA, their biggest frustration was what they perceived to be a lack of communication from the University. They stressed that they felt let down by the University, not because of the situation that they were put in, but because their concerns were not adequately responded to. They felt that the issue was being covered up as the University offered no public statement. A University spokesperson has explained that a specific individual was assigned to communicate with the students concerned and a dedicated email was set up. Students who felt let down by the process were encouraged to still utilise this service. Similarly, the Students’ Union (who are not involved in accommodation allocation) emphasised the mental health services available to those who may have struggled with the experience. Alisha Lobo, the SU Community Officer explained that the lack of public statement was in an effort to not draw “unnecessary attention to them at a time when they are still adjusting to their new environment”. Additionally, the SU’s role throughout the process was to try and “support these students directly by offering support and opportunities to make their voices heard to the University, whilst lobbying the University to ensure they were doing what they could to alleviate the situation”. 

“they felt let down by the University, not because of the situation that they were put in, but because their concerns were not adequately responded to” 

This housing problem comes amidst a growing concern by the wider student body and local community of an inflating university but static number of houses. This seems to be unaccounted for in enlargement proposals. A growing number of those entering the housing market leaves students spending large sums of money for a limited number of houses, as well as pricing out local buyers. Students are being forced to try and find accommodation further afield, with one dual-career athlete Master’s Student now having to consider paying for private housing as her allocated accommodation is over an hour’s commute from campus. This is a feat she cannot sustain on top of her busy professional training schedule. Bath’s reputation as being one of the most expensive places to rent only worsens this issue. The Student Rent Index found that the average weekly rent of £223.17 trails ahead of the notoriously expensive London capital. 

Annually, on-campus student accommodation continues to become more expensive for the new intake with year on year increases. However, as well as over-subscribing, the University has also failed to complete ongoing construction work before the beginning of semester. According to students, certain blocks of accommodation have received monetary compensation because their buildings overlooked construction sites. Parts of The Quads accommodation blocks have also been subjected to on-going building work, with students complaining of long working hours and loud noise. It has not been communicated when building work will cease which has left current occupants frustrated at the inconvenience. 

However, Bath is not the only university facing such issues as a student accommodation crisis appears to be unfolding nationwide. Chris Skidmore, the Universities Minister, has recently been forced to call a summit to address the problem of unfinished student housing after raising his concerns that many students have been housed in hotels away from University campuses, making it difficult to settle into university life. The Times reported that more than 1,500 students across the country were allocated temporary accommodation at the start of their university year, many of these due to residences being oversubscribed. 

Bristol students have reportedly had to travel 30 miles from Newport in Wales to make it into university and approximately 250 University of Portsmouth freshers were informed their accommodation would not be ready in time for the new semester. The Portsmouth News reported that some of these freshers have been forced to spend their first month at university in hotel accommodation and had to store their belongings in storage lockers. Delayed building works have caused problems for more than 100 incoming Durham students too. Many of these students were only informed of their placement in temporary accommodation the day prior to moving in. For the foreseeable future, unfinished and uninhabitable may become a common theme for university accommodation. 

The final Bath student was allocated university-owned accommodation on the 13th October 2019, 23 days after the original move in and much longer than the students believed they were going to be in there. It raises important questions over how the University has handled this crisis and how it was allowed to happen in the first place. Alisha Lobo stated that “the situation of temporary shared accommodation is absolutely unacceptable and was a gross oversight by the University of overpromising what it can feasibly deliver”. Out of the thousands of new students who arrived this academic year, fortunately it was only a small number who were affected. Yet, it remains unclear how the University will prevent over-subscription issues occurring in the future without significant development taking place. A University Accommodation Strategy was successfully set up last year and it can only be hoped that sufficient change will be made in light of this crisis. The perception among students, however, questions the priorities of the University. For them, multi-million pound buildings and new sports centres can continue to be developed, but if similar investments are not being made for accommodation, the YMCA will need to open its doors for another year. 

Photography by Chloe Coules.

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