Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Bad university accommodation

Well, I had a very enjoyable conference (perhaps more thoughts later), except for one thing. I decided to stay on campus at the University of Hertfordshire - although it wasn't exactly cheap at £46 for the night B&B, compared to past experience of prices for student halls. Looks good on first sight - OK, usual boring sort of buildings, but they're only a year old, and they look clean and smart.

1. Getting into the building (and the rooms).
So many people had trouble with this. An electronic key card system had been installed. On the outside doors, the box to stick the card in had been installed so low down that you couldn't see the slot where the card was meant to go. I was actually quite relieved to discover that I wasn't the only person who stood in front of the door for a while puzzling over how was I supposed to get in (I had to ask somebody who happened to be nearby).

But even having worked it out, the key cards were ridiculously temperamental. It took me 3 goes to get the room to my door open on one occasion. At least two people couldn't get into their rooms at all: either the lock or the key was broken. One of them was in my flat; she had to call the security people to let her in at midnight.

2. But in a way, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Why? Because nowhere in any of the flats - not in the rooms, not in the kitchen - was there a single cup, mug or glass to drink from, let alone any coffee or tea (one of the organisers told me afterwards that in fact these things were supposed to have been provided). So the security guards - who were absolutely lovely - brought us some plastic vending-machine cups, which were better than nowt. We shared out the teabags that people had brought (and I had my own coffee for the morning anyway) and had a nice cuppa and complained at length about that and...

3. The buffet lunch. Now, this wasn't too bad for me (I don't eat much at lunchtime), although it wasn't exactly inspiring (coleslaw sandwich, anyone?). But one of my new neighbours had a wheat allergy and the only thing she had been able to eat was the fruit salad. And it was the same on the second day.

4. My neighbour got into her room to discover that the toilet seat (in a nasty cheap plasticky ensuite cubicle with the tiniest shower you've ever seen) was broken and on the floor. And when she got up during the night to go to the loo, the side of her bed fell off! (probably waking up any poor sod in the room below her)

5. There were fridges in each of the rooms (but not in the kitchens), which had clearly not been defrosted when the students moved out a couple of weeks ago at the end of term. One had so much ice that the door wouldn't shut and the occupant had to turn it off to defrost - and then get up during the night to empty the tray!

6. Oh, and when I went down to breakfast in the morning there was no toast left. Possibly no bread left in the kitchen at all; they'd 'just put some rolls on'. These hadn't arrived by the time I left to get to the conference. Yes, I was fairly late coming to breakfast, but there were still people coming in and officially another 15 minutes or so before they stopped serving. And how difficult is it to keep enough bread in the freezer to make toast with?

What on earth are these places like to live in for several months? They aren't cheap for students either - over £80 a week (self-catering, I think). I'm betting the soundproofing in these new halls isn't any better than usual, and they have those really annoying doors that slam, hard, unless you stop and catch them. I lived variously in old and new student accommodation as a student, and I have to say that the older buildings were consistently a) much less smart; b) better to actually live in; c) cheaper. Also, often, more care seemed to have gone into designing the furniture for the room rather than just buying bog standard furniture (the wardrobe/shelf/bookcase unit at York in particular was a space-saving miracle). And these furnishings and fittings had survived years of use by students. None had things like ensuite (I never had a problem with this, as long as there was a decent student/bathroom ratio and a regular cleaner!) - but we all know that that's not for the benefit of students but for conference business during vacations, isn't it?

The only plus point at UH was that the kitchens were much better equipped than anywhere I ever stayed in (a flat for 8 people had 2 sinks, 2 cookers, 2 microwaves and 2 freezers!) - except for the utterly stupid idea of putting mini fridges into the rooms instead of having a proper fridge where a fridge ought to be, in the room where you cook and eat. I've never, ever seen that in university accommodation before.

So, to finish this rant, if you're ever going to a conference on the de Havilland campus at the University of Hertfordshire, don't stay on campus. And if you or anyone you know is thinking of studying there, the same warning probably applies. Unless you like overpriced, shoddy quality accommodation, of course. Trouble is, off-campus accommodation in that area is probably hideously expensive too.

Oh, and feel free to share your university accommodation horror stories...

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