Smart TVs, cinemas, games rooms, free bikes, free gym, and free unlimited wifi 24-7. Cleaners once a month, VIP shopping and restaurant discounts. Sky Sports channels. Free breakfasts as well.
Welcome to student living 2019 style. Bit different from Vyvyan Basterd and his mates in The Young Ones, isn't it? Bit different from my student experience too, and almost certainly a bit different from yours if, like me, you waved your forties goodbye a while ago.
This was my student experience in the academic year 1987/88 – a small room with a sink in a shared block in the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education halls of residence at Cyncoed, Cardiff. I’ve seen jollier looking prison buildings. If I had owned a cat at the time I might (just) have been able to swing him around without fur meeting brick wall.
I brought a small black and white television with me which showed five channels – one of which, however, was S4C and all programmes were in Welsh – and my mates used to crowd in after tea to watch that day's episode of Neighbours.
All meals were provided and there was a student bar where pints of lager were 75p and if you stayed there more than five minutes you stank of fag smoke.
They showed films on a small television every Sunday – Desperately Seeking Susan, that sort of Oscar-avoiding nonsense – and I used to drink pints of orange squash (20p) while watching them.
When the Five Nations rugby was on and Wales were playing, the bar was opened up especially. When the FA Cup final was on, the bar remained shut because it was football, not rugby. I've held that against them ever since.
We had midnight pillow fights around the campus, and some large Welsh guy – a rugby player, obviously – once smacked me in the mouth because I was English and I had told him I didn't like rugby. I still don't.
These were the days before all-day opening hours so regularly we'd be standing outside the door of a pub in Roath at 6pm waiting for it to open. No-one had ever heard of the internet, wifi, halloumi fries or craft ale. This was Cardiff, this was the late ’80s: If you didn't ask for a pint of Brains Bitter you'd get strange looks from the locals. We were told there were pubs in Cardiff city centre where English students should not set foot for fear of a good kicking. As the centre was the best part of an hour's walk from our campus, we didn't go there often.
I moved to Cyncoed when I was 18 and spent 36 weeks there studying to be a journalist. More than three decades on, it remains one of the best years of my life. It was my first taste of independence and I met some great people who remain friends to this day. And it didn't cost me a single penny, as my local county council coughed up a student grant – I can't remember the exact cost, but it was less than £3,000 – which covered everything. All food, all accommodation. It was, in a word, wonderful.
Times have changed, to say the least.
Last week I wrote about the 'tacky tombstone' student accommodation towers that are disfiguring the Portsmouth skyline near the Guildhall.
I ranted about their external appearance, how they are a modern-day eyesores lacking any architectural aesthetics (apart from Catherine House, the former Zurich Building). That contrasts sharply, however, with the facilities on offer the other side of the hideous grey and yellow cladding of Greetham Street Halls. The student living experience has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis.
It is hard to fault the facilities in Greetham Street or Crown Place, the tower block opposite Matalan car park where building work is ongoing even though students have been living there since the autumn.
I looked at a poster the other day and was gobsmacked to see Crown Place boasts a gym, a games room – complete with pool table and air hockey game – and a cinema. All rooms have wifi and broadband. The rooms are luxurious – certainly compared to Cyncoed circa ’87-88 – and it is impossible not to feel some pangs of jealously towards the students who can take advantage of all those facilities mentioned. And they don't have to pay council tax either!
There is obviously a caveat, though. For the city's non-student population, it's the depressing fact they have to look at those 'tacky tombstones' and for those who live in the blocks, it's financial. Prepare to be surprised, shocked even, by the next few sentences ...
The cheapest room in Crown Place is £155. The most expensive is £225. We are talking PER WEEK here. And you have to take the rooms on a 51-week tenancy basis, meaning the lowest price you'll pay in total is £7,905, and the most is £11,475. Lest we forget, this is for student accommodation and doesn't include any food. And lest we also forget, it's on top of the university tuition fees.
One example – say you've enrolled on a Civil Engineering (Hons) degree course, which lasts three years (plus a work placement year). Tuition fees, for the 2019/20 academic year, are £9,250. So for one year on that course living in the cheapest accommodation in Crown Place, the total is an eye-popping £17,155. For one year – with no food included – and you'll be living in Portsmouth for three. Do the maths …
Traditionally, students have lived in halls of residence for their first year, but then had to move into the sort of shared terrace house student life is inextricably linked with. Not any more. If you wanted to – and you had generous parents or a kind bank manager – you could stay in Crown Place for three years, paying more than £34,000 for the privilege.
Think that's expensive? Well, you're right, but you can easily pay more. A Nido student housing block in London is offering Club Classic Studios in West Hampstead for £435 A WEEK. Again, it's on a 51-week tenancy agreement, total cost, a staggering £22,185. That is the price some students are paying a year, at a time when families using food banks in our towns and cities is on the increase.
This is the state of England in the year 2019 – there's always been a huge contrast between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and you don't have to look too far to see that gap is only getting wider.
So let’s compare the weekly fees previously mentioned with a student house in Southsea. A quick glance on the web shows rooms in four-bed properties available from £87 a week, but they don’t include electricity or gas bills. There’s no cinema or gym either. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for.
So here's the question I'm wrestling with: would I like to be a student nowadays, with these fantastic facilities available – I mean, a pool table in my halls of residence! – or am I happy my student life was played out virtually free of technology (on our journalism course we used typewriters, there wasn't a single computer to be seen, and the only tablet I saw was a paracetamol when I had a hangover)?
Would I swap, if I could, Cyncoed ’87-88 for Crown Place 2019/20? In one key area, yes – the accommodation, pubs, shops and uni buildings are all in a fairly small area of Portsmouth and there's a lot to be said for that. And for all the nostalgia about shared student houses with grotesque fridges, inadequate heating and a general air of total shabbiness – here I will bring The Young Ones back into the conversation – there's nothing wrong with wanting clean, modern facilities as opposed to living in a health hazard. Irony only goes so far. And this is a footballing city; no one will thump me for not liking rugby.
I know it's OK saying all that, but the bottom line is this – could I afford to swap?
By building these hideously-coloured 21st century towers, are we helping to create a succession of generations whereby former students spend years trying to pay off staggering debts accrued while living in the sky and playing air hockey into the small hours?