Postcard from Zaharah: High UK rents a pain for students

When Syed Nasar Syed Nasimudin passed his first degree at a university in Colchester, he received unconditional offers from two universities to continue his master's programme in London.

With that, he felt comfortable enough to go back to Malaysia and return to look for accommodation in a city he is familiar with.

Prior to his return, Syed Nasar and his family had made enquiries about places for him to live in, in and around the university.

No such joy there, so he went back to London and roughed it out with friends while flat-hunting.

"Initially, I considered living in a dorm, but most private student accommodation was already taken.

"So choosing to rent an apartment was the only option available.

"I was under the impression that everything would go smoothly, until I learned that estate agents in London had instituted a bidding process as a result of the rise in demand for rental housing," said Syed Nasar.

He finally found a place that he is now sharing with a friend, paying around £1,450 a month, excluding bills, which could add £160 to £170 a month.

After a stressful period of having to deal with landlords and estate agents, only then could he concentrate on his studies.

His predicament was echoed by other Malaysian students who arrived in the United Kingdom, either to start their studies or to further their studies.

Suziana Zaila, a MPhil/PhD, student at the Institute of Cardiovascular Science, said she couldn't focus on her studies while having to hunt for affordable accommodation.

"Even when you find one that is affordable, landlords prefer professionals rather than students as tenants.

"There are even landlords who won't take single tenants as they prefer couples," added Suziana, who had a heartbreaking time choosing among friends who desperately wanted to share her two-bedroom accommodation.

All that after a rental increase of £300 monthly.

Suziana said as an international student, without any UK-based guarantor, she had to be prepared to pay at least six months' rental upfront.

"If we were to rent for a year, we would have to pay for the first six months, then by the fifth month, we have to be prepared to pay for the following six months.

"How could we, as students, afford to pay that lump sum? As a University College London student, I know that UCL has a guarantor scheme, but you need to check whether you are eligible to apply."

She and other Malaysian students, who had been here from the start of their studies, found that rents have rocketed and spoke about the bidding process employed by estate agents or potential landlords.

"When you have secured a house, you have to pay a holding fee.

"The more you can pay, the higher the chance that you will get the house. You have to offer more than what others have pledged to pay."

Another student, Bernard, who is doing law, spoke about the rise in the cost of living that has added to the misery of students, even when they have found accommodation.

Basically, it is still a struggle.

Bernard spoke of friends who could afford to turn on the heating for only around four hours a day; they agreed to heat their home from 8pm to midnight and rely on insulation for the rest of the day.

"I make it a point to turn off all lights at night and spend most of my time at the campus Student Centre, which is heated, has showers, and there are food and drinks."

Public transport can be expensive if one relies on it daily. Using the bus twice a day will cost almost £100 a month. Using the Tube twice a day will cost about £150 a month.

The housing problem and the attendant high cost-of-living crisis are not unique to Malaysian students, as according to reports, the UK is in the midst of a housing crisis as student numbers grow.

At the start of the 2021/22 academic year, there were universities that had warned international students that there was no guarantee they could get accommodation.

The problem had prompted some universities, such as Manchester and Durham, to pay students to defer.

There are even students who have had to live in another city and commute to campus, hardly an ideal student life as the cost of transport is increasing.

However, Malaysian students have had a helping hand.

Syed Rifqi Najmuddin Syed Azidi of the United Kingdom & Eire Council for Malaysian students said the student body had lobbied the government to increase the allowance for JPA-Mara students, which has been approved.

"That has helped them out greatly. In Bristol, for instance, they were receiving £880 per month.

"A student who lives with three other Mara students said their monthly rent is £605, and water, heating and electricity bills add £83. All in, that's almost £700.

"That's not inclusive of other bills. The allowance was then raised to £1,080.

"These students usually work on weekends to make ends meet."

This, of course, depends on where they live.

Students in London, where rentals and costs of living are higher, are still feeling the pinch.

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