Can’t stay? We’ll make you pay anyway

The private lettings market for students during the latest wave of COVID-19 is a case of flagrant exploitation, says second-year St Andrews student Rhiannon Woolford

The UK student rental market has exploded in recent decades, benefiting from a dramatic rise in student numbers to almost 2.4 million who are loaned more than £17 billion a year to fund their studies.

The continued expansion of universities has resulted in the student rental market reaching an accumulative transaction value of £4.6 billion in 2017, a figure which is expected to continue rising, and an asset value of £43 billion.

Given the clear wealth of the sector, the lack of financial support for students stuck in rental contracts during the pandemic is astounding. Both higher education providers and the government have failed us and something must be done about it.

Students and the private rental sector

Typically, a student is accommodated in university-managed halls of residence during their first year of study. This is due to a myriad of factors, such as building a social circle and a more gradual transition to independent living, with halls often being bills-inclusive and having wardens to provide on-site assistance.

However, while many universities often have an accommodation guarantee for first-years there is rarely enough accommodation for all students to stay in halls of residence for the duration of their study. For example, St Andrews has just over 4000 bed spaces but around 10,000 students. This leaves students with two options: seek accommodation in a private hall of residence, provided by companies such as Unite and IQ, or seek a private let in the local community.

Most private landlords and lettings agents will use an assured shorthold tenancy agreement, usually for a period of 12 months. Within the agreed timeframe, tenants are liable for rent without the option to give notice to quit.

Therefore students who have been once again asked to return to their family home and remain there for the foreseeable future are being forced to pay for property which they are legally unable to access.

Left in lettings limbo by the government and HE providers

Many students have been left in this position since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK last March. Yet, while the situation last March was entirely unexpected and unavoidable, this one was entirely preventable.

The commodification of higher education in the UK resulted in universities last summer promising the undeliverable to students who were desperate to flee the constraints of living in their family home and to return to independent living at university.

Within mere days of returning, however, COVID-19 began spreading on campus like wildfire – resulting in many students questioning whether they should have  returned and now trapped in tenancy agreements.

While universities have often made provisions for those in their halls of residence,  private student renters have been left to fight for ourselves. From anecdotal evidence amongst my peers, this has been to limited avail, with many private landlords unwilling to give student tenants payment holidays, rent reductions or a clause to leave their assured shorthold tenancy agreements.

While universities are happy to continue to “lobby” the government to  provide us with support, they are unwilling to put their hands in their own pockets and provide us with financial rebate.

This is reprehensible: if we hadn’t been so fervently encouraged back to campus by our universities in the first place then we wouldn’t be in this position. Our HE providers have caused this mess, they need to fix it.

I have personally paid over £3000 for accommodation, and had less than 20 hours of in-person teaching.

No one is denying that – from a public health perspective – university and government policy makes sense but, for students lured to campus under false pretences and trapped in tenancy agreements, the announcement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that we now should not return to campus until March at the earliest feels like another in a long line of back stabs by the government.

The new variant of COVID was spreading before we returned home for Christmas. The government and our higher education providers had a responsibility to tell us before we left that there would be a possibility we could not return. Had they done so, I and many of my friends would have remained at university.

The consequences of these communication failures and lack of financial support are very real for many students, some of whom are now facing personal financial crises. A recent survey from NUS Scotland has found that 25% of students have been unable to pay rent during the pandemic and 33% have been unable to pay bills. This will have a direct impact on students’ futures, with utility debts impacting credit ratings, and late payments making it more difficult to get a favourable reference from landlords.

It should not be a controversial opinion to believe that our young people’s futures shouldn’t be jeopardised by rent and utility bills in a global pandemic; we need immediate action.

What can be done to rectify this situation?

Ultimately, there are only two options which can rectify the appalling situation students have found themselves in. We must either be allowed to return to our term-time accommodation, which numerous students call home, to complete the lockdown there, or be financially compensated for our losses.

Allowing us to return under the stipulation of self-isolation upon arrival would ensure that students feel as though they have been treated fairly. That said, financial compensation is the most viable and safest option.

Financial compensation would go a long way to alleviating the anger we feel at being treated so differently to other groups of consumers. Couples who have been unable to get married have had the costs of their wedding refunded. Holiday makers who’ve had their holidays cancelled have received refunds.

Yet students remain paying full tuition and full accommodation fees for an experience which is a far cry from that which we signed up to.

Financial compensation could take a number of forms.

The government could step in to provide students with a direct refund or tuition fee forgiveness.

They could also provide mortgage holidays to student landlords under the strict and contractual stipulation that this payment holiday will be extended to tenants.

These measures would not only compensate students for their losses but also help prevent the spread of coronavirus. If the financial burden of paying rent for empty accommodation is alleviated, students will be far less likely to defy government guidance and return to university.

It is in the best interests of public health, support for government policy and the reputation of universities to financially compensate us for the mess we find ourselves in. If we can’t stay we should not be forced to pay.

Photo by Deborah Cortelazzi on Unsplash:

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