Housing crisis prompts French students to escape to the country

“You get used to the sound of the early morning tractor,” said Jules, a final-year engineering student, as he climbed the steps to his accommodation in a former cowshed on a dairy farm outside Lille in northern France.

The 23-year-old from Nord-Pas-de-Calais is among a growing number of students opting to live on farms as France faces a student housing crisis.

“I appreciate the landscape even more since the pandemic lockdowns, when some of my friends were shut in their rooms in student halls and I was at home with my parents,” he said. “It’s a nice way of life on the farm. Everyone says hello, it’s spacious, I buy farm eggs and cook them for breakfast.”

Since the Covid lockdowns, there has been a boom in French students looking for cheaper and more spacious accommodation on farms, despite the need for car-sharing, bikes or public transport to get to lectures in the cities and towns.

French students at public universities do not have the burden of high tuition fees, but there is a major shortage of purpose-built student accommodation for the rising number of undergraduates. Many are forced to live at home or rent city-centre studio flats in the overpriced and oversubscribed private sector, leaving others to look for a different way of life.

For the farmers struggling on low-incomes and pensions, it is also seen as a way of preserving France’s small-scale agriculture.

“This was once a cowshed and grain storage area, with chickens running around,” said Anne-Claude Lamblin, a dairy farmer, outside the historic red-brick farm building in Prémesques, near Lille, which she and her husband renovated into six furnished student flats. When they retire from the daily running of the 64-hectare farm, which has 52 dairy cattle, the rental income will supplement their small pensions.

“It brings us into contact with young people,” Lamblin said. “Some students want to explore the farm, watch the milking or try cheese-making, others are more focused on their studies. There are tea or drinks in the garden, students use the trampoline. One student’s partner came here for lockdown during the pandemic, she was from the city and loved bars and nightlife, but in the end she felt it was nicer on a farm – going out into the garden, meeting the others, going for walks.”

With prices at about €300 (£260) a month, living on the farm is far cheaper than in the centre of the nearby university city of Lille. The student accommodation is self-contained although the farmers often host get-togethers or help out when cars break down or doctors are needed.

“It allows us to stay young, always having youngsters around,” said the farmer Jean Lamblin, as he crafted cheese.

Gwendoline, a 23-year-old accountancy and management student, previously had a privately rented studio flat in Roubaix, a town outside Lille. “It was a tiny flat, I never saw anyone, I didn’t know my neighbours and there was noise from downstairs,” she said. “Here on the farm, it’s so calm. I didn’t know farm life at all before this. I was shocked at how much farmers work – they’re out there from the early morning until late at night seven days a week.”

Odile Colin runs Campus Vert, France’s first organisation to match students to farm accommodation. The idea began with three farmers near Béthune in northern France in the mid-1990s when many French universities were decentralised to middle-sized towns that lacked housing.

But since the pandemic, Campus Vert is booming and expanding across France. With 500 units of accommodation and a further 100 being renovated, the rules are simple: the fully furnished renovations always focus on old farm buildings, no hangars. There is a limit of six student units per farm. Rents are 20-30% lower than in nearby towns and cities and farmers must create a friendly atmosphere with events such as crèpe nights, welcome drinks and help if students need it.

“We saw a 10% increase in demand for housing on farms at the start of this university year,” Colin said. “More students are coming to us not just for cheaper prices, but because it’s the countryside. Lots of young people are looking for a different way of life to the tiny room in a city. But they do often need a vehicle to get from the farms to university, so we’ve put in place car-sharing or farmers loaning bikes, to bring down transport costs. Since Covid, young people have been telling us: ‘If we’re locked down again, at least we’re in the countryside.’”

Imane Ouelhadj, the head of the UNEF national students’ union, said the fact that charities and organisations were on the frontline of the student housing problem showed the government “needs to draw up real public policy on youth and student poverty”. She said only 6% of French students lived in rent-controlled, purpose-built student accommodation, which was severely lacking in France. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, promised 60,000 new units of student housing when he was first elected in 2017 but they have not all been delivered.

At the Lamblin farm, Chloé, 22, who studied horticulture and sustainable development, had brought a Harry Potter poster and her goldfish to her furnished studio flat. “With a communal garden, I prefer this to city life,” she said. “When I visit my parents, I take them cheese from the farm shop.”

Guillaume, 19, recently arrived from Belgium to study landscape gardening, said: “I’ve always preferred village life, so the farm is a compromise. If I want to go out and party, there’s always public transport to get to Lille.”