Student commuters left feeling isolated with unaffordable accommodation in York


“It’s really lonely”: commuting York students are missing out on their university experience with soaring rent prices

Article Image

Image by Alanah Hammond

By Alanah Hammond

The University of York student renting prices soared by a 27 percent average last academic year. With weekly rent bills rising up to £195 a week for popular housing areas, such as Hull Road and Badger Hill, students were concerned for how their finances would be impacted with the unprecedented rent rise.

One year later and the aftermath of the renting crisis is apparent. Third-year students Scarlet Saunders, Ellie Underwood and Max all no longer live in York and commute to university because they can’t afford the rent prices.

With a reliance on public transport, Scarlet, Ellie, and Max have all missed crucial university teaching but also “the university experience” because of delayed, long and expensive commutes.

The commuters are not alone in their concerns about money. The University of York found in their ‘Tell us’ student survey, in February 2022, that 60 percent of its students were worried about finances.

The University has offered schemes such as a £100 Off Campus Rent Grant and Food Vouchers, but for many students this is not enough as their student loans do not cover their rent. The student housing charity Unipol confirmed this, finding accommodation costs take up almost all the average maintenance loan received by university students in England.

The University of York also found that 11 percent of its students don’t talk to anyone about money or finance worries. However, Scarlet, Ellie, and Max agreed to tell Nouse their stories to highlight the severity of the renting crisis which has impacted both their studies and mental health.

Scarlet Saunders is in her final year of studying Economics and commutes from her hometown Swinton, which is just outside Sheffield in South Yorkshire (not to be mistaken with Manchester’s Swinton). Scarlet’s commute is around an hour and a half, including one train and one bus, and costs around £30 a week.

Scarlet wakes up every morning at 06:30, walks to the station and catches the 07:20 train. The train takes around an hour– if there are no delays– and arrives at York station at 08:30. With bus delays, the earliest Scarlet can get to the university campus is 09:30, sometimes 10:00.

Commuting four out of five weekdays, Nouse asked Scarlet to describe her journey to York. One-word: “terrible”. After a nervous laugh, Scarlet explained “It’s really bad and very time-consuming. Of course, it is a lot cheaper– £30 a week is much cheaper than the rent prices in York– but with the train times I can’t make any 09:00 teaching”.

With missing multiple 09:00 seminars and lectures, Scarlet has received emails from the university highlighting her poor attendance, which is just another added stress she says.

On the flip side, Scarlet explained that she also can’t stay in university too late or she will miss the last train home. For example, on a Tuesday Scarlet has a lecture which finishes at 18:00 but the last direct train is 17:15. If Scarlet went to that lecture, she wouldn’t get home until 22:00 or 23:00.

Nouse asked how much teaching Scarlet has missed because of commuting. She explained, “I’ve missed a lot of hours. Definitely ten to fifteen lectures which are two hours each, and it’s only November.  It’s really hard to catch-up too. With economics, my lecturers use a whiteboard and lots of diagrams which I can’t see online, so I miss notes and descriptions”.

It's Scarlet’s third and final year– arguably the most important. Nouse asked how she is feeling with the pressures of the degree but also the commute. Again, with her emphatic declarations, Scarlet said “stressed”. She continued, “I’m quite stressed but it’s not just that. It’s really lonely. I feel like it’s not really common for people to speak about, but I’ve been speaking to my boyfriend about it a lot. I just feel so isolated”.

Scarlet used to cox at the University of York’s boat club when she lived in York. As a consequence of the commute, Scarlet has had to give up such social societies. “Even if I wanted to cox and row this year, I can’t. It’s just not feasible for a 06:30 session. You really miss out on the university experience”.

Scarlet has moved back with her Dad and brother. She explained the adjustment: “It’s really like going back in time. You have all this freedom at university and then it’s like you’re in secondary school. It’s made me want to move out of my house”.

Scarlet described how the commute has impacted her social life: “I often feel that people don’t really understand how it feels to travel because whenever I mention it to people, they’re like ‘but you do have friends’. But you go from living with these people, seeing them every day, to seeing them twice a week, if that”.

After two months of commuting Scarlet has had time to reflect. “I definitely regret choosing to commute but I couldn’t afford to live in York, so I was kind of pushed towards that option, it wasn’t really a choice”.

Scarlet explained how the commute is rarely pleasant. In particular, Scarlet recalled one early morning commute which left her both distressed and exhausted: “With the rail cuts, there aren’t any rail guards per se at Swinton station– I’m not sure if it’s because I live in a small area”. Scarlet continued, “But in broad daylight, I was harassed and followed by a man on the platform. He offered me substances and kept asking me where I lived to the point where I was so upset, I just went home and didn’t go to university that day or do any work”.

“It upset me so much and there was no one to report it to, both other passengers and rail staff. I could have phoned the transport police, but I wasn’t sure if it was severe enough and by that point it was too late. It was not a nice feeling at all. It really put me off”.

Nouse asked how Scarlet’s mental health had been impacted by her commutes to university. Scarlet explained, “I’m just in a cycle of mood swings. One day I’m happy and then on the next day, I don’t want to get out of bed”. She continued, “I really have to push myself. I’ve never really had to push myself this hard. Just to get here is such a push. I have to force myself out of bed in the morning instead of sleeping in. I used to be able to sleep through my 09:00 seminar but if I sleep through my trains, I miss everything”.

Scarlet finished her interview by explaining, “I put quite a lot of stress on myself about it all. I don’t want to come across like I’m struggling or that I can’t handle it all. I want it to come across like everything is ok, so I just keep pushing”.

Ellie Underwood is a third year Philosophy, Politics, and Economics student commuting from Harrogate which takes around an hour and a half, depending on buses.

Ellie wakes up at 06:30, gets the bus at 07:10 then catches the 07:30 train to York station. Often the 07:30 is cancelled, so Ellie gets the 08:05 train which means she has to pay for a £15 Uber to make it to a 09:00 seminar on time.

With a commute depending on three transport links, including train and bus, Ellie explained the impact of her commute on university teaching: “I’ve missed two seminars which could have been really crucial, and it is only November. I managed to catch up but that’s in my own time”.

Ellie added, “The commute eats into your day very quickly. There’s been multiple instances when a bus hasn’t shown up which has made me late for my seminar, so I’ve just had to turn back and travel home”.

“When I’m running late, and have to Uber for example, it throws you off for the whole day. I spend the first ten minutes trying to catch up and then sometimes I miss the check-in codes, so it’s like ‘why do I put the effort in to get here if they don’t even know I’m here?’”.

“It gives me such anxiety when I know I'm going to be late. When I eventually arrive at university, it distracts me for the first half of the lecture and if I miss the start, I often miss anything important such as formative deadlines”.

Ellie’s commute costs around £20 a day, but if a £15 Uber is needed with train delays it can quickly become much more expensive. Ellie only commutes twice a week because “any more would be insane”.  She explained, “It very quickly becomes around £150 a month to commute which is a lot, especially when it’s really unreliable”.

Ellie only comes in for seminars and misses lectures as she can catch up online. She explained, “If I was commuting any more it would be too expensive. I can’t afford £300 a month to come in for four days. I must come in for seminars, but at least I can watch my lectures at home”.

Ellie continued, “I can’t afford to come into university for literally an hour or a 20-minute conversation. It would just be insane”.

The final student commuter Nouse spoke to was Max who is in his third year of studying Business Management. Max commutes from Tadcaster which is on the outskirts of Leeds. Max started the academic year living in University of York accommodation in David Kato but soon left.

Max told Nouse, “I left accommodation in York because it was too expensive. Now I’m in my third year, I’ve had two full-on years of spending quite a bit of money, so I just thought the best option was to move back home and save money”.

Max now spends £15 a week on his commute rather than £165 a week for accommodation in York. His journey is a 20-minute walk to the train station, a 15-minute train to York station and then a bus to campus.

However, like the other commuters, Max has missed university teaching with train delays and cancellations. Max also described how he is missing out on the social element of university, describing “I’m not speaking to the people I used to live with as much… living in York in the accommodation was a lot easier”.

Nouse asked if he thought the university was doing enough. Max said, “No. No chance. We’re putting all our loans onto accommodation and last year I was working to help pay rent too. It is very tough, but the university needs to up their game”.

Max understands how most students are struggling with rent. “For me, moving back home and commuting was the only smart option because I live in Leeds. I did have an easy way out whereas people I know who live in London or Newcastle for example, they can’t travel back home and commute”.

He continued, “ They have to pay £200 a week on rent with external landlords but in my situation, I am quite lucky. I now have the option to spend my loan on something else other than accommodation fees”.

The University have said “We know finding the right place to live is a huge part of university life and that accommodation is a major cost to our students and we are sorry to hear about the experiences of Scarlett, Ellie and Max. It is clear the current cost of living crisis is affecting everyone, with increases in rent, utility bills, food prices and transport costs".

They continued, "We have dedicated support (see our web-pages) for students who live at home, highlighting help available and, in addition, students who live at home while they study can join a WhatsApp group and we organise regular social events. We’re continuing to look for more ways to provide support to students for example with our off campus rent grant scheme which was launched this semester and put in place as a direct response to the rising prices of private rental accommodation in York."

Their guide, which aims to support students through the Cost of Living Crisis, can be found here.