Students Are Paying Thousands for Flats the Government Has Told Them Not To Use

VICE World News speaks to students who are unable to live in their rented accommodation due to government guidance, but are still being charged rent.
Students Blake Foxall (left) and Ben Elliott
Students Blake Foxall (left) and Ben Elliott. Photos courtesy of the subjects.

A private student accommodation provider is being accused of “unacceptable” and “morally wrong” behaviour after charging students thousands of pounds in rent for accommodation that is vacant because of COVID. 

Unite Students, one of the largest providers of purpose-built student accommodation in the UK, provides rooms to 76,000 students each year. It has refused to cancel contracts where students are unable to return to accommodation because of coronavirus, or provide refunds for students who have left accommodation because of coronavirus. In some cases, students have never set foot in their accommodation due to the pandemic, but are still being charged thousands of pounds in rent.

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The Diary of a Student Rent Striker

Students in England were evacuated from campuses in December, and since then a national COVID lockdown has been put in place. Under the lockdown, the majority of university classes have moved to online-only, with the government telling students who are not on courses such as medicine or dentistry that require face-to-face learning to “remain where they are wherever possible.” The UK Office for Students says that students “should not travel back to your university accommodation to collect any of your belongings unless absolutely necessary.”

Unite Students said it had announced rental discounts in excess of £100 million during the pandemic.

Ben Elliott, a student studying business management and marketing at Leeds Beckett University, had to return home to Bulgaria after the death of a family member from COVID in December. Along with other returning students from overseas, Elliott has been told by the UK government to stay where he is, and is requesting a break in contract at Unite’s Sky Plaza accommodation from the point he departed the UK. 

In an email exchange seen by VICE World News, Unite says that unless Elliott can provide evidence that he has left university, as well as “medical or financial evidence” that he needs to end his contract, the company will not cancel the contract. Otherwise, Unite advises Elliot to find someone else to fill the room. 

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“It has been hard enough having to deal with everything upon first getting into the UK in September, let alone then having to sort out [the death of a family member] and having to fight every single day to try and get a contract cancelled,” he said over the phone. “It's so ethically and morally wrong, what they're doing.”

According to Unite’s website, there is no specific policy to help students if they have to cancel their housing contract because of COVID-19. Unite has offered students a 50 percent discount on a maximum of seven weeks rent during the national lockdown for eligible students – if they apply and fulfil a set of criteria, such as not being able to occupy the accommodation or not having any outstanding rent. Students who originally applied for a discount on four weeks rent – an initial offer by Unite – will have this discount automatically applied, but must wait until March for the discount to apply. Money is not returned but credited to their account. Elliott is not eligible for this discount. 

According to its annual reports, Unite reported £156.2 million in revenue in 2019. 

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 tips@vice.com, or contact Ruby Lott-Lavigna at @RubyJLL or ruby.lott-lavigna@vice.com.

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Other university 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 and the ability to cancel contracts with no penalties. Education policy is devolved in the UK, and while the Scottish government has legislated that students can end their tenancies early, there is currently a limited amount of government financial aid for students at English universities in this position. The Welsh government also announced a financial package at the end of January. 

Blake Foxall, a third-year student studying football business and marketing in London, was meant to move into Unite’s First Way accommodation in Wembley, north London, in September. Due to construction delays, Foxall was unable to move into his accommodation until the 31st of October, the same day a second national lockdown was announced. He decided to stay with his parents in Brighton but has had to pay £5,000 in rent for accommodation he is unable to access due to government guidance against travel. 

“I've never, never even set foot into the flat and still have still had to pay all the rent,” he said. “When I see emails chasing me for any payment, it is just stressful and very tedious knowing that I have paid for somewhere I've never lived and don't know if I’ll ever live.”

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“I just know that they're not going to help us,” he added. “They're not trying to help students at all. Clearly, all they care about is their revenue and profit. And they're just trying to suck out as much money as possible from students. It's pretty disgusting.”

Foxall says that contacting Unite has become increasingly difficult. The company has removed the chat function from its website, and lists a phone number on its website with an automated message that directs students back to the website and then disconnects the call. 

Declan, a first-year student studying in Liverpool who only gave his first name, decided to leave Unite accommodation in November after his course went entirely online. The housemates he was living with had also refused to abide by coronavirus guidelines. Declan left university accommodation with Unite and requested to cancel his contract, but they have refused his request. He is still paying rent on his room and has paid almost £5,000 in rent in total.

VICE World News reached out to Unite Students. A spokesperson said: “Since the outbreak of this global pandemic, we have announced rental discounts totalling in excess of £100 million, which is a very substantial package by any terms. We are one of only a small number of private landlords who have provided any degree of financial support to students.

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“Like any private landlord, our customers sign binding contracts and our rents are not normally reduced for time tenants choose to spend away from a property,” they continued. “However, recognising the disruption students face in these exceptional circumstances, we have offered all eligible students a seven-week discount up to the 8th of March, which we believe is fair and proportionate. We will keep this under review. We would urge any student who is struggling financially to talk to us and also to contact their university student finance team for access to any additional support.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise students have had a difficult time over the last year, which is why we have recently provided up to £70 million to help students most in need, for example, those struggling to cover accommodation costs due to the pandemic, on top of the existing £256 million available to universities.”

“We welcome that many universities and private accommodation providers have already offered rent rebates,” they continued, “and we encourage others to review their accommodation policies to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart."

VICE World News also reached out to Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president of higher education for the National Union of Students.

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Gyebi-Ababio said: “It is simply unacceptable that Unite, and so many other landlords, are forcing students to pay for housing which they have been told not to occupy [if not in the accommodation already] on public health grounds. All student renters must be offered full rent rebates and the option of leaving their tenancy early.” 

A number of rent strike campaigns are helping students who wish to break contracts with Unite.

“Students have been left behind by the government in this pandemic. Unite and other private companies are taking advantage of this and a poorly regulated housing market,” said Zac Larkham, an organiser from the Sheffield Hallam rent strike group. “They see us as their cash cows, tied into exploitative contracts they know we cannot leave.”

Campaign group Generation Rent says that students have been provided with little assistance during the pandemic. 

“Students have been hung out to dry by the government with no financial support to cover the rent,” Dan Wilson Craw, deputy director at Generation Rent, said. “When students don’t have to be at their university to continue their studies, it is astonishing that a landlord like Unite is treating students who need to cancel their tenancies so harshly. It is further evidence that the government must urgently step in with a ‘COVID rent debt fund’ to stop young adults being forced to pay for this crisis.”