Could universities do more to end homelessness?

Think tank: HEPI

Author(s): Greg Hurst

July 21, 2022

This report from UK think tank HEPI looks at how universities could do more to track and prevent homelessness amongst students.

This report argues universities should do more to track and prevent homelessness among their students and could play a wider role in supporting efforts to end all forms of homelessness. It says universities have done too little to collect data on rates of homelessness among UK students or to conduct research into its nature, causes and potential solutions. The paper says it is ‘striking’ how little robust data exist on homelessness among current and former students, despite anecdotal evidence and snapshot surveys suggesting that some universities have underestimated levels of ‘hidden homelessness’, such as sofa surfing among their students. It points to higher-than-expected numbers of students who were unable to leave university campuses or accommodation during the COVID-19 lockdowns as they were estranged from their families or had nowhere to go. A large survey by the National Union of Students in 2020 found a similar picture.

Greg Hurst, a former Education Editor at The Times, calls on universities and higher education bodies to research and track homelessness among current students, former students who quit their studies and recent graduates. This could be done with light-touch surveys, undertaken in partnership with student unions, snapshot national polling commissioned from specialist market research companies and through a new question on housing status in the National Student Survey. A case study on the University of Glasgow explains how the institution plans to research homelessness among its students. The paper argues those students who are identified as experiencing or at risk of homelessness should receive targeted support, such as short-term financial assistance or access to accommodation, especially at the start of the long summer vacation. Some universities might improve their continuation rates by doing so. Students are less likely than people of their age in the general population to experience homelessness, which is closely associated with poverty and adversity in childhood and UK students should also have access to maintenance loans and other support.

Nevertheless, with 2.7 million students in the UK, a drop-out rate of 5.3 per cent and a continued policy focus to widen participation by bringing more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education, the report argues universities should treat student homelessness more seriously. The paper also urges universities to do more to end all forms of homelessness through their research and teaching, and in their civic roles as major and often dominant actors in the local economies and communities in which they operate.