Words by Jack Fifield, photography by Maya Bond-Webster.
Is this an “appropriate living standard for a human being”? Not according to one resident. Despite being described as “shipping containers” in one TrUWE post, at £150 per week, it’s more than the weekly cost of a Wallscourt Park en suite.
The University of Bristol is not the only Bristol university to have accommodation problems.
UWE is doing something different — housing students in temporary structures located opposite Cotswold Court, often used to house construction workers, provided by company Bunkabin.
Assembled over two weeks in early September, you won’t find “Purbeck Court”, as it’s known, on most campus maps or even the UWE website.
If you hadn’t heard of it, you’re not alone: even staff don’t seem fully aware of its existence — one staff member I phoned at UWE’s InfoPoint questioned whether I had the right university, only recognising the location after I described it as the temporary structure opposite Cotswold Court.
I spoke with one student, Raaswin (Law), who allowed me to take photos in his room and told me that he had stayed in an Airbnb for two weeks after moving from Malaysia whilst he waited for Purbeck Court to be ready. Unfortunately, my time with him was cut short, as we were interrupted by Vivienne Jowett, head of accommodation services, who told my photographer, Maya Bond-Webster, and me that she “[didn’t] particularly like people just coming in and harassing students in their homes”, telling us she’d “rather that [we] left”, despite us having obtained permission from Raaswin.
I returned to Purbeck Court a few days later and spoke with three different students, Alex Rogers (History), Joe Oakes-Monger (Economics), and George Doye (Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science), who told me a little bit more about the residence.
Joe revealed to me that he was moving out of Purbeck Court next week as he had sent “a really long email” saying that he didn’t think it was “mentally viable to live here for a year”, saying it was not an “appropriate living standard for a human being”.
Joe didn’t like “having to go outside every time you want to use the kitchen”, saying “you can literally see, right there, all of these people having the time of their lives in their flats”, referring to the regular accommodation. Alex concurred, saying they were “getting singled out”, “they look like a joke”. “It just doesn’t feel like a normal place to live”, added George.
“The walls are pretty thin” added Alex, “every drunk student […] you’ll hear them, like, shouting outside.”
The initial email about Purbeck Court, sent on the September 11th, stated that if students did not accept the offer, “your accommodation application will be suspended as we will not be able to make you any further offers.” Joe took issue with this, telling me “it’s very weird and I already emailed them a week ago asking if I could be put back on the list and they said no”, “it was only after I […] sent them a really long email that they finally [put me back on the list]”. Alex agreed, “they did make it feel like it was this or nothing”.
The email further stipulated “If I do not hear back from you by Friday 13th September, I will assume you are no longer looking for Accommodation, can offer this opportunity to another student and suspend your application with us”, giving just two days for a decision to be made.
Living in Purbeck Court doesn’t come cheap. At £150 per week, it’s a higher weekly cost than an en suite room in nearby Wallscourt Park, which comes in at £143.65 pw, and it’s well above Carroll Court’s £107.03 pw. Joe called this “extortionate”, later adding “you don’t just pay for a room, you pay for the other areas you get as well.” Purbeck Court does have three small kitchens, but it does not currently have televisions or living rooms, unlike the similarly priced Wallscourt Park en suite rooms. “There isn’t anywhere to socialize” added George.
Despite being a temporary structure, Purbeck Court appears to be a permanent solution for students this year, who are expected to live in it for the whole of the academic year.
I met again with the head of accommodation, Vivienne Jowett, a few days later. She said that Purbeck Court is “a pilot group of students”, to see whether this style of accommodation would be appropriate as a temporary replacement for Carroll Court for two to three years whilst it is demolished and replaced with larger accommodation.
Responding to allegations of pressure tactics in the initial email, Jowett stated “it wasn’t intended in that way”, “with that particular email we shouldn’t have said we’re not going to offer you anything else”. Jowett claims no students, to her knowledge, were removed from the list as a result of rejecting or not replying to this offer.
Asked about lowering the price, Jowett said “potentially, it’s something we will look at […] as we get towards Christmas and we start to look at what we’ve been able to provide […] I’m not saying no”. Asked whether she would live there for a year, Jowett said “I think people live in worse”, “it’s difficult, isn’t it, unless you put yourself in that position and in that age bracket”.
Jowett added that a living room cabin with a television is forthcoming.
However, it’s not just those in Purbeck Court who are unhappy with UWE accommodation. I spoke to one student, Luke Farrow, who found himself lacking accommodation after getting a place at UWE through clearing.
According to Luke, advice given concerning finding private accommodation “wasn’t great, it was just a list of websites to go through yourself”. Luke says he wasn’t told about accommodation shortages until after accepting his offer, with advice consisting of a list of websites including Airbnb, Gumtree, and Roomgo, a company that emailed Luke offering a “premium membership”, which it advertises as offering “10x better chances [sic] to find what you’re looking for”. Roomgo touts its premium membership as offering the ability for “unlimited contact to ALL room ads” and the ability to “access basic rooms before other users”, creating a two-tier system for people already desperate to find a house.
I joined Roomgo myself and tried to message a landlord. A popup informed me that I couldn’t do this without paying for premium membership. Advertised as “Just £1.43 a day!”, it’s easy to see why some desperate house-hunters may do this, especially when the website is recommended by UWE. Purbeck Court resident George added that he “very almost did” pay for premium membership because he “just wasn’t getting anywhere” with his search.
Jowett responded, “what we tried to do was to gather as many webpages together as possible so that the student didn’t have to do that”. When I asked her if this was prioritising quantity over quality, she said “potentially”.
James Arrowsmith, Liberal Democrat councillor for Stoke Park and Cheswick, which includes Frenchay Campus, said: “The situation Purbeck Court students find themselves in is disgraceful. Students are being exploited by UWE Accommodation’s extortionate rates and used as guinea pigs in a depressing environment which could have an adverse effect on their mental health. The university should show it’s serious about academic ambition and the mental welfare of their students with swift and decisive action to find students a suitable living space where they can be allowed to succeed and make the most of the student experience.”
Ruth Day, of ‘Bristol, Cut the Rent’, added: “It’s absolutely disgraceful that UWE is housing students in poor quality temporary accommodation. Every student deserves a safe and secure place to live in and UWE has fundamentally let students down. What is further shocking is the price of such poor-quality accommodation. This situation all boils down to Universities putting profit before people. Universities view students as income, which has led to them expanding too far and putting them in such a precarious position as this. Bristol, Cut the Rent calls on UWE to urgently sort out this situation, reimburse students for the ridiculous amount in rent they have been charged, and put in place a policy to ensure that this does not happen again.”
For now, this isn’t the end of bunkabins on Frenchay Campus, but what isn’t clear is whether we will see more, or fewer, of them on campus next year.