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11:46am on Sunday, 22nd January, 2012:

Very Accommodating


My younger daughter applied for university this year (to study Pharmacy, if you must know). One of the universities on her list, the University of East Anglia, is making more of an effort than the others to try sell itself. This means that it's either: a slick, corporate machine; following a plan formed by some high-flying committee member who read an article on "consolidating the sale" in an in-flight magazine once; or desperate. As the Pharmacy course arrived in 2003 as a save-the-Chemistry-department wheeze and (probably as a total surprise) shot to the top of the UK's Pharmacy course rankings, I guess they don't want to risk its all going wrong so they're aiming for consolitating the sale.

Anyway, in line with this they sent my daughter a booklet about accommodation at the university. It's full of pictures such as this one, which is so good it appears twice:

Gosh, the floors are so clean you don't need to wear shoes! Except, in the second use of it they crop her feet off.

It also has maps of accommodation, of which this is an example (for the "Ensuite Premium 1800 rooms" — not "En Suite Premium 1,800 rooms", but let's evolve the written language):

It's like reading a cruise ship brochure.

Now the thing is, we could do this at Essex University too. In fact, for all I know we do do it. We built some pretty good new accommodation across the river about 6 or 7 years ago and there's more on the way with the new Knowledge Gateway (a business park being built in partnership with a house-building company that's also building the university and itself some houses).

What isn't obvious about Essex University's accommodation, however, is that it's (one could say racially) segregated. Some accommodation is reserved exclusively for overseas students. This means that students from China or India or Saudi Arabia or wherever come to the UK to study but find themselves living primarily with other people from China or India or Saudi Arabia or wherever. They don't pick up much English, because they speak their own languages the whole time except in lectures. I suspect that they don't participate as much in (non-ethnic) student societies either, because they have homes to go to after lectures rather than having to mooch around on campus.

Anyway, the social consequences of giving housing priority to overseas students aside, what this means is that Essex University's accommodation guide would be packed full of attractive rooms, many of which prospective students such as my daughter would never be offered. It doesn't matter that the University Quays is award-winning if you don't get to live there.

The reason for this segregation is entirely practical: the university is limited in the number of UK undergraduates it is allowed to have on its books and can recruit more than apply anyway. It is not limited in the number of overseas undergraduates it can have, therefore it tries to attract as many as possible. An overseas student who finds they will be spending their first year on campus and their second and third years living in whatever digs they manage to find in the rush at the end of their first year is less likely to choose Essex University than they would be if they were guaranteed accommodation for all three years.

I'm not sure how sustainable this is going to be once home students paying £9,000 a year in fees start arriving. If you're spending that kind of money, you'll want a better service than "live in the back bedroom of this 85-year-old near-blind Scottish widow with a short bed that has a mattress dented by the shape of someone who died in it" that I got when I was off campus in my second year as an undergraduate.

I'm also wondering just how well this kind of discrimination would stand up in court, too. I'm sure the lawyers have it covered, though (after all, we do have a Law department specialising in Human Rights).

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).