An ex-student who quit her course because of mental health-related reasons is in £1,800 of rent debt due to her housing provider not cancelling her contract.
VICE World News has seen emails sent by Unite Students – one of the UK’s largest student landlords – to Paige Shroll saying that it could not cancel her contract without a letter from her GP relating to her health, or if she committed to rebooking a contract with the landlord for the following academic year.
Shroll, 18, was studying policing at Sheffield Hallam University and moved into The Forge, run by Unite Students, in September 2020.
She told VICE World News that, along with her flatmates, she was unable to use communal areas due to COVID restrictions, and often faced issues from Unite Students security staff who moderated when students could leave and return to their flats. Struggling with mental health issues and isolation after all but one of her flatmates moved out, Shroll was presented with the option to leave her course and return next year by her university support team.
Shroll left The Forge and returned to her home in the Midlands shortly before the second English national lockdown in November, to help her younger siblings who live in a precarious family environment. At the end of January, she officially dropped out of her course and cancelled her student loan which had largely funded her rent, as she comes from a low-income, single parent household.
Are you paying rent for student accommodation you can’t use because of coronavirus? Has a student landlord refused to break a contract with you? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can email email@example.com, or contact Ruby Lott-Lavigna at @RubyJLL or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unite Students says it will not cancel Shroll’s contract from the point she left university as it says her circumstances do not fulfil its cancellation policy, which states that students must cancel their contract within seven days of accepting the original contract. In emails seen by VICE World News, Shroll is advised to find another tenant if she wishes to end her contract, commit to a contract starting in the next academic year, or provide a note from her GP. Shroll says she is thinking about getting a letter from her doctor, but that especially during the pandemic, it is difficult to access local health services. And all the time, she is accruing more rent debt.
Shroll says she is currently in £1,800 of rent arrears from the end of December, when she last paid rent. In 2019, Unite Students reported £156.2 million in revenue, according to its annual reports.
Unite Students is responsible for housing 76,000 students across the UK. It does not currently have a specific cancellation policy for students dealing with extenuating circumstances during the pandemic, leaving many students paying for rooms they have been advised by the government not to return to. Unite Students is not legally required to cancel contracts with tenants like Shroll, but the government has encouraged student landlords, “to review their accommodation policies to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart."
“It was very lonely in my room,” says Shroll over the phone, who along with her younger sisters was removed from her mother when she was younger because of substance abuse issues. “I knew that I couldn't mentally stay there and had some family issues going on as well, that were playing on my mind a lot. And I felt like I needed to be home for that.”
Unite Students has offered a 50 percent discount for seven weeks for “eligible students'' unable to fill their accommodation in this current national lockdown. Other university student accommodation providers, such as the University of Exeter and the University of Manchester, have given students full rent rebates for weeks they cannot return to university, as well as the ability to cancel contracts with no penalties.
VICE World News reached out to Unite Students. It said: “Our focus throughout Covid-19 has been on supporting students and we have announced rental discounts totalling well in excess of £100 million since the start of the pandemic – far more than any other student accommodation provider.”
“Like any private landlord, all our tenants sign binding tenancy agreements with us. Our booking terms, including our cancellation policy, are clearly set out. Following a seven-day cooling off period, tenants are liable for all rental payments unless a replacement tenant is found for their room, or they enter into a new tenancy with us.”
“However, in this particular case, we have offered to cancel the tenancy agreement and have asked the tenant to provide medical evidence from their GP to support the cancellation request. We have not received this supporting evidence, although our offer to terminate the agreement is still available.”
Shroll is currently working part time in McDonald’s and is looking for a second job to pay off the rent debt. “It's stressful,” she says. “One of the reasons I dropped out of uni in the first place, [is] because I was feeling a lot of stress and anxiety about it. And this whole situation has made it a tonne worse, especially when I feel like it's just me fighting this battle. It's worrying to think about the future, and how I can afford things.”
Shroll says that when she quit her course, it was not made clear by her university that she would not be able to automatically end her housing contract with Unite Students. Sheffield Hallam says she would have been provided with documents stating she would still be liable for any accommodation contracts if she leaves her course.
A spokesperson from Sheffield Hallam University said: “As a University we are committed to supporting our students who need it most and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic which has had a significant impact. The vast majority of the accommodation contracts and tenancy agreements our students have are with established private-sector providers as the University doesn’t have any accommodation of its own. However, we are working closely with accommodation providers to try and ensure that tenancy agreements reflect the current circumstances.”
“We have a range of funding schemes to support students, including a new Rental Hardship Support fund for current students who are renting, and who have not already received a refund/rebate from their accommodation provider,” it continued. “We’ve also distributed £2m to students so far via our bursary scheme, and we took the step of increasing award amounts this year to reduce the financial pressures faced by some of our students.”
Students across the country have been facing courses that are taught entirely online despite initial promises of a mix of in-person and online courses. In the middle of a pandemic, they have had to deal with mass outbreaks, reduced access to services, isolation from normal social activities, and often expensive housing contracts they no longer need or cannot cancel.
A survey from website Save the Student found that students have paid almost £1 billion for accommodation from a range of accommodation providers they haven’t had full access to. On average, the survey found students were paying £1,621 for empty rooms.