TikTok Is Exposing The Scandal That Is Bad Student Housing

In 2008 we bailed out the banks. We now face the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with record youth unemployment. Who will bail out young people? R29 and Vice are joining the National Union of Students to call for all students to be offered rent rebates and asking the government to bring back maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds. 
When 20-year-old Tobias Peever, who is in his second year at Salford University, signed up to live in private rented student accommodation, he did not anticipate that his days there would be spent fearing for his safety. "We were trapped inside in this hellhole of leaks, mould and water in the electrics," he tells me. "It was really dangerous. I had my mum on at me most days, begging me to sort it out." 
With the situation only getting worse and the landlord repeatedly ignoring his calls and emails, Peever, who is studying television and radio production, decided to make a TikTok documenting his living situation. In the video, which has been viewed over 850,000 times, Peever gives a tour of the missing oven knobs, the unlockable doors and the peculiar 'coffee cup' stains on the ceiling, deploying the app’s popular 'things in my house that just make sense' format. 
In 'part 2' of the video, the fire brigade makes a cameo after an alarm goes off. They’re unable to find the source of the fire "because the fire panel is behind a locked door".
Peever isn’t the only student turning his abysmal living conditions at uni into viral TikTok fodder. Other videos feature everything from what might be laughed off as quirky, cost-cutting design – such as a toilet with a built-in sink or a door positioned halfway up the stairs – to the more serious problems students have encountered, from gaping holes in the floor to precarious balconies, spider infestations and collapsing ceilings
In scenes reminiscent of Titanic, 20-year-old Havana Salmon – a second-year digital marketing student from Birmingham University – created a TikTok of the floods which tore through her private rented student accommodation. According to Salmon, it’s the second flood this academic year, the previous time being when sprinklers went off in the common room. 
The response from the company responsible for Salmon’s newly built accommodation has been one of total negligence. When her clip was shared on a popular student meme page, Salmon spotted a bizarre but telling comment from one of the builders, which read: "That's what happens when twats like me are working on the building." The comment was deleted swiftly after. "It’s a joke to them," Salmon says, "they really don’t care."
"There are so many problems, the flooding is just one," she continues. "The lifts never work, I’ve had drilling going on for weeks. We were living in what felt like a construction site for a very long time… They [the university] don’t give a shit. They just want your money." 

TikTok is not only galvanising students – it's helping them to realise and exercise the power they already have. 

There is an abundance of research pointing to the significant impact of living environments on students' mental health. And in lockdown, accommodation – where students are spending more of their time than ever before – takes on an even greater role, particularly when more than half of all students in England say their mental health has worsened since September.  
It should come as little surprise, then, that Peever says he struggled with his mental health as a result of his accommodation. "I felt like I didn't have a home," he says. "It was that really unnerving situation of just feeling really lost and kicked out of everywhere." For Salmon, the feeling now is one of exhaustion: "I was angry but at this point I’m just tired. It just feels like we’re getting shegged [ripped off]."
"It’s important for students to arrive at university and feel seen and valued by the accommodation they're provided with," says Dominique Thompson, a GP and student mental health expert. Beyond fixing the obvious, such as leaks and damp, other factors including green space, natural light, communal areas and designated 'quieter' halls should all be considered vital for student mental health, says Thompson. "Accommodation is as important as academic provision and in some ways, wellbeing support," she adds.
There is an obvious reason why the student rental market often fails to address these essential demands for student wellbeing. "Like the rest of the housing market, it is governed by the profit motive rather than students' actual experience," says Matthew Myers, author of Student Revolt
According to Myers, the tripling of university tuition fees essentially transformed the student rental market. "What we've seen since 2010 is a growing and increasingly significant sector of the student housing market, made up of purpose-built student accommodation, not overseen either by the universities or small-time private landlords, and financed by some of the largest financial institutions in the world," he explains. These major investments are motivated by low interest rates, which make guaranteed rent – particularly when subsidised by the government through student loans – increasingly lucrative, adds Myers. 

Security slammed our pizza on the ground and we only got half of them. #manchester #uomrentstrike

♬ original sound - uomrentstrike
With universities more closely resembling businesses in this sense, they’ve become increasingly divorced from the experience of students. "Universities like to spread the myth that students aren’t struggling," explains Izzy Smitherman, a University of Manchester rent striker who helped document the student occupation of a university building on TikTok. 
This is where TikTok, Smitherman says, could offer a unique opportunity for students. "A lot of the time, when the uni does listen [to students], it’s because of the press," she explains, "so when the press are sharing these viral TikToks, it puts pressure on the uni to act." This is applicable to other forms of social media of course but the nature of TikTok's 'For You' page means that videos are often more likely to go viral and be picked up by media outlets.
Peever similarly used TikTok to expose the private renter company responsible for his accommodation. "Someone from the company came over to fix the oven knobs and recognised me from the video. He said the whole office had seen my TikTok," he says. Peever thinks the video’s virality is partly what eventually prompted the company to move him and his flatmates to temporary residential accommodation, where he’s currently staying. 

Students' position within the economy is now so important that any movement today will have far greater effect than that of the 2010 student protests.

Matthew Myers
Since moving, Peever has realised the stark difference between residential and purpose-built student accommodation. "Both are owned by the same company but the new place is a penthouse... It’s some Molly Mae shit and it’s actually cheaper than our accommodation before," he says. With the student rental market now driven by profit, explains Myers, "the incentive will be to maximise capacity, so there may well be shortcuts" when it comes to the design of purpose-built student housing.  
Prior to posting on TikTok, Peever says that he’d felt reluctant to go to his uni for help with his accommodation. "[In second year] you feel like you're trying to be a bit more independent and not be so reliant on the university to baby you all the time." It was TikTok, he says, that ultimately encouraged him to take the next steps. "The support from the video was overwhelming," he says. "It was really empowering to feel like I was part of such a massive community of young people that were saying, 'Go, lobby them to improve it.'"
Students across the country are similarly refusing to be beholden to their university. This is precisely where Myers sees a profound shift occurring in student activism. "The devaluing of student experience means the student is no longer a 'student'. The student is a renter, the student is a worker." It is their rent, after all, which is driving the transformation of city centres. This, according to Myers, presents a double-edged sword, giving students greater leverage when it comes to lobbying their institution. "Their position within the economy is so important that any movement today will have far greater effect than that of the 2010 student protest," he says. 
The success of the Manchester rent strike – which saw students secure a 30% rent cut – is a clear example of how students are wielding their vital role in the economy to their advantage. In this sense, platforms like TikTok are not only galvanising students – they're helping them to realise and exercise the power they already have. 
You can sign the NUS petition calling for a better deal for students here

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