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Bed and breakfast operators and others in the private accommodation sector in the Fort William area are being urged to consider letting to students rather than just the lucrative tourist trade as a way of tackling a growing problem.
With around around 240 members of staff and almost 2,700 student enrolments, the economic impact of West Highland College UHI on the local economies of Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross was around £31 million in 2020.
Of these students enrolments, the college welcomes around 175 new students to its Fort William campus each year, but this week says it is facing a real struggle to find accommodation for them all.
Whilst around 40 students are accommodated in the college’s own Halls of Residence, many of the other students stay in private accommodation and the college says it is keen to identify some new providers.
Lydia Rohmer, principal and chief executive of the college, explained: ‘Many of our courses, especially those of our School of Adventure Studies, focus on the superb attributes of our beautiful and wild land and seascapes, so they naturally attract students from around the UK and internationally.
‘As a result, they contribute significantly, not only to the economy of Fort William and
its surrounding communities, but also act as a valuable labour source for many tourism and hospitality businesses in the area.
‘We have ambitions to further extend the range of courses that we offer as a result of our planned development of a STEM centre on the Blar just outside Fort William, so we will continue to attract more and more students.
‘We want to do all we can to help secure appropriate accommodation for them and give them the warm highland welcome they deserve.’
Alyson and Iain Stewart have run a local bed and breakfast for 23 years and for 22 of these, have taken in students of some kind and would like to see more accommodation providers following suit.
‘Because our house is our home we had to be very careful and we found the mix of students and other guests was never an issue,’ Alyson explained.
‘It was a positive plus for us. Yes, it’s not the most lucrative option but we wanted to retain a work life balance and with the students we had once a week deep cleans which
meant that every day we were not tied to the house.
‘We have never had a single bad incident with them and, in fact, the very opposite. They have always respected our home.
‘For the future of our infrastructure we must put something back into our town and
accommodation is a huge struggle. We have grandchildren of our own away at university so we have seen the other side of the coin and this has also influenced our decision. Many of our student residents from past still keep on touch with us to this day.’
However, Caol and Mallaig ward councillor Allan Henderson said while he fully understood the problem facing the college, he felt the best solution was for it to continue working with Highland Council’s experts.
‘Despite not really fitting in with my idea of the development of the Belford/ St Mary’s site – a Gateway to Fort William High Street – I was fully supportive of the hostel-type planning application at the front of the site because of the shortage of affordable student accommodation,’ Mr Henderson told the Lochaber Times this week.
‘Over the years tourism businesses have been encouraged to upgrade to higher standards so prices have had to go up which prices out students. As well as this, we have all got used to fairly full-on seasons, probably when many students are on holiday, and like the break in the off season when students are most likely to require accommodation.
‘I would encourage West Highland College to continue working with Highland Council’s affordable accommodation provision team to examine funding streams to provide student accommodation.’