How student housing co-ops could change students living

This blog is cross posted from the Guardian

Students behind the Birmingham student housing co-operative

The rise in university tuition fees has dominated headlines and borne the brunt of student anger at the coalition government since 2010, but there is another drain on student finances that has so far escaped scrutiny.

The average cost of renting as a student in the UK is now £68.70 a week according to Accommodation for Students, which analysed the costs of 100,000 student properties in 77 cities. Soaring rents are not just the hallmark of the private rented sector; the average cost of student accommodation within university halls of residence has doubled in the last 10 years, rising from £59.77 to £117.67 a week.

The average rent for student accommodation in Birmingham is approximately £61, but to live close to the university’s facilities many students choose to pay a higher rent between £80 and £90. But the rise isn’t reflected in the quality of accommodation.

“Some of the houses are dumps,” says Sean Farmelo, a 21-year-old philosophy student at Birmingham University. “Weekly rent prices are now going up by about £5 each year and that is because most of the houses are lived in by students. Students have been taken for cash cows and no one has done anything about it.”

Farmelo and his friends are behind what will soon become the UK’s first student housing co-operative. They have secured £550,000 in finance that will go towards purchasing two five-bedroom houses in Selly Oak which will remain permanently available to student members of the co-operative.

Farmelo had been involved in co-operative schemes before and had received an £8,000 loan from the National Lottery to set up a bicycle co-op in Birmingham, as he lives in a cheaper part of town and cycles in to lectures to avoid the higher rent charged around the university.

Co-operative living promised a way to make a student house a real home, protect residents from rogue landlords and lettings agents as well as making a helpful saving on rent. But when the idea began to take shape, the amount of money they realised it could save took the group by surprise.

With the help of a computer program provided by Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services (BCHS) – the organisation that has provided the £550,000 loan needed to purchase the properties – they calculated how much rent they would need to pay each week. “We started putting in figures like £60, which would have been cheap anyway, and there was loads of surplus,” says Farmelo. “Then we put in £50 and there was still a lot of surplus. Even at £40 there was still quite a lot. We went down to £38, but we thought that was ridiculously cheap.”

The figure has not been finalised yet, but Farmelo says they are looking at around £40 a week, which includes management fees, a maintenence allowance and accounts for a full refurbishment every 15 years. And the savings the co-op will bring could not come at a better time.

“Tuition fees have just gone up and maintenance loans aren’t getting any bigger,” Farmelo says. “I pay more on my rent this year than I get in maintanance loans. It’s really squeezing a lot of people out of education.”

The speed at which the idea became a reality also surprised the group. “I thought they would say this is a good idea, but we’re not able to give you £550,000 that quickly,” admits Farmelo. “But apparently they are.”

BCHS is not normally in the habit of handing out half a million pounds to undergraduates. “The important thing is that the group of students we’re working with clearly have experience working with co-operative enterprises,” says director Carl Taylor.

The group had hoped to get funding from a co-operative lender to purchase the homes, but without a record of property management they initially found funding difficult to secure. However BCHS was convinced by the model, and when the co-op system has been tested the group intends to reapply for funding and purchase the properties outright.

With more than 18,000 students paying between £60 and £160 a week to live close to the university, there is plenty of potential for growth. “At the moment our issue is meeting the excessive demand, which we can’t ever hope to do,” says Taylor.

With the battle over tuition fees lost, extortionate housing prices could be the next target for those tired of seeing the cost of a higher education in England increase every year.

Farmelo says that it shouldn’t be left to individuals to look for the solutions. “This is what student unions should be doing. As a student, you only spend your money on tuition and housing, with a little bit left over for food and a pint. Unions only really focus on things such as safety and community spirit, which obviously they should be doing, but it’s like hiding under a shell and ignoring the fact that students are getting ripped off every year.”

Two houses with a combined 10 bedrooms may be a humble beginning to the student housing co-operative movement but Farmelo believes his model – and the UK student housing network he intends to establish – could eventually help replicate the more established large-scale student housing co-operatives found in American universities.

“I did this in my spare time, and what I want to do is make it available to a lot more students,” he says. “A couple of years down the line you can really start tapping real finance, such as pension funds and larger loans, to buy halls that will house hundreds of students. It’s a real possibility but it needs a catalyst to show people that there is an alternative.”

 

‘The Customer Is Always Right’ Andrew Vallance Owen’s policies endorsed by Cameron.

Over the past few years the NHS has been under a joint and sustained attack by the Lib Dem Tory coalition and large private businesses. I have previously written about the way in which these changes to fundamentally important services will negatively affect students.

David Cameron’s most recent bright idea to reform the National Health Service so that “GPs should be subject to patient satisfaction tests” is almost directly modelled on a theory that Vallance Owen (The Chair of the Trustee Board of the Guild of Students) has been propagating for years, that ‘customers’ know better than doctors and nurses with years on academic and real life training in healthcare provision.

Illustration courtesy of Jack Copley

Illustration courtesy of Jack Copley

Along with the transposing the ‘successful’ usage of games makers in the Olympics into a hospital environment Cameron is looking to introduce a version of Rate My Professor for GPs inviting family and friends to complete questionnaires on their satisfaction of their experiences. Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary claims that “The new friends and family test will shine a light on standards of care throughout the system and help expose the shocking examples of poor care that have been coming to light much earlier.” The reality is of course more complex – hospital experiences are often traumatic, procedures are complex and hard to understand for lay people. What the government is attempting to institutionalise is a process by which non medical and deeply emotionally implicated evaluators judge the performance of GPs who all have at least 10 years of experience in medicine behind them.

The idea of patient evaluation was originally propagated by Andrew Vallance Owen. He was previously a senior executive of the private healthcare firm BUPA and he now chairs the Department of Health’s PROMs Stakeholder Group and works as a private healthcare consultant. The general thrust of patient reported outcomes measures are a precursor to what Cameron and Hunt are now suggesting; that along with standard performance measures patients should rate aspects of their experiences during their stay in hospital with the aim of improving the standard of care. The focal point is that the patient is that the wise consumer will always know what is best for him/her. Vallance Owen attempts to support PROMs mechanisms by attempting to discredit deference to trained professionals as ‘paternalistic and claims it isn’t helpful to view ‘what doctors do to patients as more important than the outcome as perceived by them.’

As a hugely effective healthcare system it has been difficult for the government or businesses to paint the NHS as in need of an overhaul or dismantling instead there has been a steady stream of propaganda implying that the consumers of healthcare (and other public services) should be entitled to have a choice between services they use. On the surface this liberal logic seems sensible, it might be perfectly sensible to have a choice between Utterly Butterly and Lurpak butter, or Dixons and Comet, each to his own. However the differences between types of healthcare are far more complex than the differences between other types of services and products that might usually be available to consumers.
The simple fact is that the types of procedures and long term monitoring that patients regularly need aren’t simple to comprehend and often the only people that should be making choices about where care should be coming from and in what format it should be delivered are clinical professionals that are trained in the intricacies of each particular illness.

The Illusion of Choice is something that has been spread deeply into most every major piece of policy the Government has crafted during its time in power. For instance the HE white paper and the Brown Review before it were based fundamentally on the idea that students, keen for the best illusive ‘Student Experience’ know the best about what is good for them at university. Module Evaluation Forms and National Student Surveys are constantly thrown at students whilst less and less reliance is placed on academics to deciding on the learning environments and curriculum’s of students. As our own VPE has pointed out this constant barrage of checkpoints and evaluation of professionals detracts from their ability to focus on the task at hand and increases the workload burden for their already stressful work lives. As noted by academics at the Harvard School of Business, overly prescriptive goal setting and monitoring doesn’t work. The added layers of bureaucracy take up time and distract professionals, be it in the NHS or in the HE sector, from applying their expensive training on actually doing their jobs to a high standard.

In short patients opinions should be valued and taken on board in a democratic manner, much as in HE environments. However the opinions of patients shouldn’t be used in a complimentary manner to rigorous medical data obtained by health professionals. A greater reliance on patient reports could lead to increase managerialism and scapegoating or be used as the supporting material to make ‘difficult decisions’ with.

1. Guardian, Patrick Wintour – http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/04/david-cameron-gps-patient-satisfacone might saytion
2. YouGov Poll (page 5) – http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/ly9ei68uye/YG-Archives-Pol-ST-results-10-120212.pdf
3. Simon Furse VPE – http://guildofstudentsvpe.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/module-evaluation-questionnaires/
4. Ordonez, D., 2009 – Goals Gone Wild, HBS http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/09-083.pdf
5. Vallance Owen, A., 2008 – PROMs promote health gain and patient involvement
http://www.bmj.com/content/336/7640/344.2 & http://chcm.ubc.ca/2010/12/17/vallance-owen/ (55min video)

Birmingham students setting up cost saving Housing Co-op

A Housing Co-op is a democratic business that owns or rents property for the purpose of housing its members. The rent is so high in Selly Oak because investor landlords are extorting students and making huge amounts of profit whilst providing low quality housing. We are proposing the opposite – to buy property with loans from the co-op bank and cut out the middle man whilst creating affordable and high quality housing.

Screenshot from 2012-12-11 13:01:13

Members of a group that hope to form the Birmingham Students Housing Cooperative have been working with BCHS a cooperative housing association to develop a viable business plan for buying houses in the Selly Oak area and providing low cost rents. We have been working through the potential problems and risks of creating a company to buy two initial properties that we can live in.

Our ideas stem from the models of Berkley Student Housing Cooperative in California and also work done last decade by the NUS and an urban regeneration co-op called URBED

It turns out the problems are few and our initial estimates of the rent rates, including regular repairs, management and a full refurbishment every 15 years our business plan is giving us a weekly rent rate of possibly as low as £38 per person (although this rate could creep up a little when other factors are included). When we entered the discussion with Carl Taylor from BCHS we knew we would probably be able to undercut the profit grabbing investor landlords that dominate Selly Oak but we had absolutely no idea that we would be able to deliver such incredibly low rates and remain financially viable. Given that rents paid by students living in Selly are generally above £60 the cooperative represents a saving of at least £1144 for the students that will live in the houses next year. Over the next forty years, without adjusting rent rates for interest, or adjusting for the fact that the priced of rented properties in Selly Oak is increasing faster than inflation, these houses will save students of Birmingham at least £457600 or half a million pounds!!

I’ll quote the text of a motion that I authored which has been deferred from two councils at the Guild for little to no good reason, but will hopefully pass when it is finally heard in January – to explain quite the extent of housing issues that students in Birmingham and across the country face.

Students across the UK spend 31% (or an average £4004)of their annual expenditure on rent, and the rate that housing costs increases is double that of inflation. Alongside the whole accommodation burns in student pockets, horror stories of ‘lost’ deposits, exorbitant holding fees and nasty landlords are common talking points in student life and have deep repercussions for student welfare across the U.K.
Currently Guild of Student housing policy is contingent on Government policy, lobbying and awareness raising, and provides no concrete and coherent strategy. Given that such a large percentage of student spending goes to accommodation it seems obvious that the Guild of Students should be taking a full and engaged approach to actively improving living conditions and end the widespread rent extortion of its members, One way to do this is to support and facilitate the creation of Housing co-ops which would provide accountability, affordability and security in housing. Housing co-ops fully supported by NUS and in the International Year of Co-operative, and at a time where conventional businesses are failing and rents are soaring it seems a good idea for the Guild to put its support behind the stable form of housing. The Guild has already put its support behind helping the Green Bike Project get off the ground and the People and Planet society have started their food co-op, it seems the time is ripe for housing co-ops with the support of the Guild.

Its clear that the rent is too damn high, we don’t know the full extent of the problem, but a certainty is that lobbying government and running a letting agency won’t fix. Students need to start thinking with their pockets and investing in a sustainable housing solutions like housing co-ops that will benefit them for generations to come. It would be brilliant if the Guild did as much as possible to facilitate the creation of these co-ops and promote them to the student body as much as possible – so if you are a student at the University of Birmingham speak to your councillor and make them aware of this motion and why it needs to pass in this Guild Council and shouldn’t be delayed yet again.

Screenshot from 2012-12-11 13:07:29Students involved in the plans for the Students Housing Co-op refining the business plan in the next week or so to prepare for a meeting with Cooperative and Community Finance which is the loan fund from which we will secure the deposit on a ~£450k mortgage with which we are looking to buy two 5 person properties.

As well as the business plan we’ve been busy gathering a group of people who are prepared to live in this new housing co-op which would be open in time for the academic year of 2013-14.

However nothing is yet set in stone and we all in agreement that if the interest is there and people are keen to live in a democratic, cheap and friendly place they should get involved with the project! If you are interested contact me or join the Facebook group, the membership isn’t cemented just yet and this is a real chance to save yourself a tidy grand and be the start of something really positive.

Birmingham Students at Cooperatives United – the International Cooperative Conference

2012 is the UN International Year of Co-operatives, and the culminating event, a conference called Co-operatives United was held in Manchester in homage to its heritage as the original home of co-ops, nearby Rochdale. A group of People & Planet members travelled up from Birmingham on a coach with Midlands Co-operative Members, to take part in a session on student co-operatives across the world. What is a co-operative?

Sean and Tom outside a “Big Ideas Pod” on Wednesday 31st October 2012 at Co-operatives United, Manchester Central Convention Centre, Manchester

The talk was hosted by Richard Bickle, an all round co-operative guru, who has been helping Birmingham P&Pers with the scoop they have been setting up. It went through the history of student co-operatives, what position they are in currently, and ended with Q&A on how students can work with unions, co-operative development agencies and People & Planet to help student co-ops flourish across the UK, and around the world.
The talk on student co-operatives covered North America, with Tom Pierson from North American Students of Co-operation (NASCO), student learning in co-ops, different models from different colleges, the very advanced and integrated Quebecios model, where up to 90% of university services – even book shops and stationery shops – are multi-stakeholder co-operatives. He made reference to a number of famous student co-ops, including the Berkeley Student Co-op – which has well over 1000 housing members, and more who are involved in the dining co-op.
A talk by Graeme Wise from the NUS on the history of students’ unions, and particularly on co-operation within them. he talked about SUs coming about as groups of societies working together co-operatively, and they different to trade unions as it was all about trying to create a sustainable, equitable economy within the student community. Now SUs are controlled by a university/HE block grant, and their status as a charity (which came about in the 90s). Graeme talked about how SUs were working to lose their own services to external private suppliers when they had previously been working co-operatively to raise the student voice. This has meant SUs have been restricted in what they’ve been able to achieve with a significantly higher level of autonomy, particularly financially – the block grant is always being threatened to be cut by their respective learning institutions..
The talk by Tom Wragg covered, P&P’s role in student co-ops nationally – the SCOOP campaign, and then how we have been acting on it locally, and where it has opened doors for new people to be involved. He and Sean also talked about the Green Bike Project at the University of Birmingham, and working with university staff and other stakeholders to create these spaces in universities. Working with universities is all about finding the right people to speak to, and it’s vital people link their campaigns and ideas together, and remembering that your universities, colleges and schools can gain a lot from allowing students to start a new co-operative – even if you’ve been causing them a lot of hassle over the last year(s). Tom Wragg followed on from the North American experiences to make a comparison between co-op cultures both in North America and the UK, and highlighted our deficiencies, where we could expand, and the benefits it could bring the student community – affordability, experiences, life skills, quality, ethical and sustainable.
Sean’s talk covered the ways in which fledgling cooperatives can exploit the current climate in both HE institutions and SU’s where both parties are scrambling to promote and support things that increase their brand image or improve their ‘student experience’. He talked about the way in which the Green Bike Project, a maintenance repair co-op has support from a normally hostile university and the ways in which People and Planet groups across the country should manipulate their universities short-term desires for brand image boosts to get funding for long term projects like co-operative cafes, bikes shop or food stalls. Projects like these if done in a proper democratic and open manner could end up being the glue that holds our evermore marketised universities together and provide spaces in which students and staff can get together on equal terms. Sean also talked about a housing co-operative scheme that is evolving in Birmingham and suggested that SU’s should work with P&P, NUS and also NASCO with their prior experience to bring about a stable student housing cooperative template that can be replicated in ‘studentvilles’ across the country to break the bubble of landlord extortion that normally occurs.
In the Q&A we talked about CLTs, new builds, and sustainable building for long-term efficiency gains, low costs and low maintenance. We talked about how co-operatives can provide real ethical investments, as long as those investors do not try to influence the functioning of co-ops after they are set up.
We then talked with David Rodgers (President of the Housing Sector at the International Co-operative Alliance, a federation of national co-operative federations) about how he started in housing co-ops in the early 1970s when he was president of an SU, and how he’d been part of a co-operative development agency (called CDS) in London, which now provides co-operative housing services for thousands of people in London and the rest of the UK. The Sanford Housing Co-op has 130 rooms, and is a very successful example of a new-build in London, SE14. There are two other co-operative housing services co-ops in England, one based in the West Midlands and one in the North-West. If people know of any others in the rest of the UK, please leave a comment! Housing co-ops offer an incredible place to invest in environmentally sustainable building practices, such as LILAC in Leeds.
With Tom Pierson from NASCO, we talked about dining co-op models and the various ways in which we could have two tiered memberships for board and dining. this could mean co-ops could act as a social glue in universities. He also talked about how the ownership of land and property could be controlled by co-operative members and not influenced by conflicting parties, due to their ownership of the properties/liabilities.
Tom Wragg & Sean Farmelo – Birmingham P&P
Cross posted from the People and Planet Grass Roots Blog

National Demo T-Shirt Competition

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151470955095278.585013.791100277&type=1&l=2a8092c7d1

Vote for the design on the front of Birmingham students National Demo T-Shirts here
http://tinyurl.com/8hm2v8l
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Government and universities are cutting education and research budgets, squeezing stipends, wages & pensions, while drowning us all in fees and personal debt. Courses and departments are being closed, universities privatised. This marketi
sation of education is worsening a tiered university system, keeping the rich rich and the poor poor.

Through workfare and unpaid internships, we work for nothing, to compete for jobs that don’t exist, while support for the poor, unemployed and disabled is cut.
University is a public good, and your life is too big to fail – don’t let them bury us in a mountain of debt. March on 21 November.
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https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151470955095278.585013.791100277&type=1&l=2a8092c7d1

Private Healthcare Does Not Benefit Students.

Students and local residents from South Birmingham have unfurled banners across five of their houses on the Pershore road along the route of the Bupa Great Birmingham Run to voice their disgust at the privatisation of the NHS. Approximately fifteen thousand runners saw these giant signs which are a cry to save the national healthcare system from private hands, including BUPA who are the sponsors of the half marathon. The community are distressed at the prospect of a private NHS and the effects this may have upon their local hospital.

Not only did the BUPA Run cut right through the heart of South Birmingham but The Chair of the Trustee Board for the Guild of Students Andrew Vallance Owen was a senior executive at BUPA until this spring. He is now a freelance private health consultant and has acted as a strong advocate for the privatisation of the NHS. It’s hard to look at the weak arguments presented by executives (such as ‘‘providing better car parking than the public sector’) and not wonder if there is something more than meets the eye. In fact there is, the basis of the privatisation of the NHS, one of the best quality and best value health care providers in the world, is no more than institutional greed of corporations. There is an almost direct correlation between donations made to the Tory party and which firms receive NHS contracts. All major contracts above 20m have gone to companies which tories donors are stakeholders and the top ten private healthcare companies have contributed 10m to the Conservatives and received 5bn in contracts in return, a swiftly ballooning figure.

One of Andrew Vallance Owens main achievements during his seventeen-year tenure as Group Medical Director at BUPA was introducing a market based ratings mechanism similar to the National Student Survey called PROMs. The Patient-Reported Outcome Measures are based not just clinical outcomes, but patients’ perceptions of the care they have received and are used as the basis for future changes made to health services.

PROMs are an integral part of the drive towards marketisation of the NHS. They provide a “customer focused” measure that is easily comparable and provides a way for patients to choose between different providers. The problem is that setting up something like a PROM as the definitive measure of quality leads to perverse incentives; especially in private providers exclusively geared towards profit. Lay people just do not understand medical procedures; we would find it almost impossible to judge how well our surgery has gone or what is the most effective method for treating Kidney failure.

What we can judge is the outcome of procedures and non-essential aspects of delivery. That is to say we can tell that a procedure hasn’t worked but not whether the doctor has followed the best method and been unlucky, or has made a mistake. We can judge the quality of the car parking at the hospital but not the quality of the X-ray procedure. This leads to providers attempting to game PROMs by providing cheap non essential services such as improved car parking; but more importantly it erodes the relationship of trust between doctor and patient. If you know that your doctor is under pressure to maximise their PROMs how can you trust that their advice is genuine and not an attempt to make you feel more satisfied. There are direct parallels between PROMs and the NSS; the marketisation of health and the marketisation of education that is our union is supposed to be fighting against.

Vallance Owen stands to gain lots from a private money in the NHS, whilst students don’t, it will lead to a clunkier more expensive and lower value health service. As such, these interests conflict with the interests of students, most of whom rely on the NHS for their welfare. It is improper for the Chair of the Trustee Board of an organisation committed to the interests of students to actively lobby for the privatisation of the NHS. It is a conflict of interest that compromises his neutrality and ability to protect all students, especially those in Medicine, Nursing and Biosciences, who will be most directly affected.
Furthermore, the involvement of BUPA in the NHS, spearheaded by Vallance-Owen, will result in the more profitable procedures and postcode areas seeing increased private involvement whilst less profitable services such as the ones students rely on mostly, such as the drop in centre in Selly Oak being avoided because they provide lower returns.

The privatisation of the NHS, at the hands of the coalition government has already been the cause of 42,000 job losses as of September 2012 with more on their way, and this has come at the expense of lower standards of care for patients. In 2012, every major private healthcare provider (Virgin, Serco, Care UK, Circle, Spire, BMI, BUPA and Barchester have failed Care Quality Commission Inspections). Virgin, for example, left its patients lying in their own urine.

The irony of a giant private healthcare company plowing millions into media extravaganzas such as the BUPA Great Birmingham whilst it provides sub par care conditions and contributes to job losses is an irony not lost on the local Stirchley community. What needs to be understood by Vallance Owen, Landsley, Hunt and their ilk is that the vast, vast majority of people want the NHS kept public and that they aren’t winning any hearts by buying the advertising rights to running events and forcing bills through with expensive propaganda.

Art Competition for the National Demo 2012

Graduate debts > £60k | Undergrad fees £9k | uncapped Postgrad and International fees rocketing

PhD stipends frozen | 79% cut to teaching budgets | millions unemployed | welfare support slashed

March against fees, debt, cuts and privatisation!

Government and universities are cutting education and research budgets, squeezing stipends, wages & pensions, while drowning us all in fees and personal debt. Courses and departments are being closed, universities privatised. This marketisation of education is worsening a tiered university system, keeping the rich rich and the poor poor.

Through workfare and unpaid internships, we work for nothing, to compete for jobs that don’t exist, while support for the poor, unemployed and disabled is cut.
University is a public good, and your life is too big to fail – don’t let them bury us in a mountain of debt. March on 21 November.

On November the 21st The Guild of Students intends to take 500 University of Birmingham students down to London.

As with the last National Demo the Guild organised, Demo shirts will be included in the price of the coach tickets however this year we are asking you to get involved in the design of these shirts and submit your designs for the national demo shirts 2012.Once we have recieved all the submissions we will weed out the unsuitable or unprintable submissions and create a shortlist thatall Guild members will be able to vote on. The winning design will be worn by 500 student protestors on the day of the demo.

Whether they are political satire, great quotes or just fantastic artwork you should send your designs to cao@guild.bham.ac.uk by the 23rd of October so that they can get printed in time for the campaigners to go doorknocking with in the weeks leading up to the demo on the 21st Nov 2012
We are leaving the design up to you but it should not be profane, it could possibly be defiant and it most certainly should be A4 sized and in black and white.

GOG have also assured that the shirts will be printed by a local ethical printers and at the moment it looks very likely that Sabcat, a great workers cooperative based in Walsall will be doing the printing on ethical shirts which is fantastic!
If you have any further questions about the submissions do feel free to email me and I’ll respond in good time so that you can get your design in.