Updated 26th July 2020

This section has undergone a significant revision giving (amongst other things):

  • up-to-date references on recent Government guidance
  • planning ahead for occupancy - what the sector is doing
  • a special section on buildings coming on line this summer and how the Code will expect suppliers to deal with any delays in construction
  • evidence on the 2020-2021 intake
  • Code members and flexible contracts
  • lessons learnt from the 2019-2020 refunds arrangements and complaints made.

TENANTS FOR THE 2020-2021 ACADEMIC YEAR

Many suppliers will already have moved some of their new students into their accommodation across July.

Updated Government guidance recently appeared:

a) On 20th July the Civil Procedure Rules Committee agreed rule changes to be applied to possession proceedings once the current stay on proceedings comes to an end on 23rd August 2020. These are unlikely to affect many students but they can be consulted here.

b) COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities was updated on 23rd July 2020 and is available here.

 This guidance now reflects the latest advice for clinically extremely vulnerable (shielding) individuals, advising that routine repairs and maintenance may take place in their homes from 1 August 2020. The landlord and tenant guidance also includes additional advice on dealing with anti-social behaviour and the abandonment of properties, whilst encouraging landlords and tenants to consider mediation as a way to resolve disputes.

c) On 17th July Friday of last week the Government updated its guidance for Higher education: reopening buildings and campuses which can be consulted here

There is a specific section on accommodation together with useful links to other Government guidance which reads:

Accommodation

In advance of the next academic year, you will want to prepare accommodation for students. Some of this accommodation has been used for housing students who were not able to go to family homes during lockdown. Where students have contracted coronavirus (COVID-19) while in student accommodation, rooms and other facilities will need to be cleaned if the infection is recent, following guidance on cleaning non-healthcare settings. Accommodation that has been vacant for over 72 hours will need standard, but thorough, household cleaning.

DfE has issued guidance for students and providers about how students may safely collect belongings left in student accommodation in a safe and managed way.

There is no prohibition on moving home and anyone in England who wishes to move home can do so, including forming new permanent or semi-permanent households by moving into shared student accommodation and houses in multiple occupation. Guidance for landlords and tenants on renting and coronavirus (COVID-19) is available. It will be important to apply those public health measures necessary to protect the wellbeing of students living together and those staff assisting them. 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published guidance on consumer contracts, cancellation and refunds affected by coronavirus (COVID-19). This sets out the CMA’s view on how the law operates to help consumers understand their rights and help businesses treat their customers fairly. Students may be entitled to refunds from accommodation providers depending on the terms of their contract and their particular circumstances. If students need help, organisations such as Citizens Advice offer a free service, providing information and support.”

The latest update also includes advice on social distancing and on self isolation and testing facilities.

In moving into a new house or flat students are forming a new household and therefore social interaction within the household is allowed. This means that interactions with others outside of the household must follow the guidance issued in respect of visitors. This will change over time but social activity with other houses, flats or parents falls under guidance for visitors.

Visitor guidance changes frequently but is still very restricted and can be consulted at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do

The key information is that people should not

  • socialise indoors in groups of more than two households (anyone in your support bubble counts as one household) – this includes when dining out or going to the pub
  • socialise outdoors in a group of more than six people from different households; gatherings larger than six should only take place if everyone is from exclusively from two households or support bubbles
  • hold or attend celebrations (such as parties) where it is difficult to maintain social distancing and avoid close social interaction
  • stay overnight away from home with members of more than one other household.

Self-Isolation

Where a student has symptoms of Covid-19 they should self isolate and that self isolation applies to the whole household for 14 days. This period can be shortened if a test is taken showing a negative result and housing suppliers may wish to let students know of their local testing arrangements or how they can obtain testing via the postal system. All members of the household will need testing.

Guidance on vulnerable groups means special arrangements need to be made to protect those with these characteristics within student accommodation.

It may be useful to establish a link or make contact with your local Director of Public Health and a list of these can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/directors-of-public-health-in-england--2/directors-of-public-health-in-england

Visitors and Social Interaction

Parents will want to help their students move into their new accommodation and the advice here is based on what is practical and has already been effective. Unipol would advise making it clear to parents that:

  • they should spend as little time in the house or flat as possible
  • that the house or flat should not be used by parents for any socialising (either with other students or parents)
  • soft furnishing should not be utilised other than by members of the household
  • no eating or drinking should take place in the house/flat.
  • This is primarily intended to protect parents themselves from the risk of infection from inter-parental activity or from other members of the new household.

Once students have moved into their new household visits home should be less than normal to reduce transmission of the virus.

The guidelines on visitors and social interaction will be changing constantly but both students’ unions and the educational institutions themselves will have an important role in communicating expectations to students. Some institutions are developing “Community Responsibility Agreements” (or something similarly titled) to encourage appropriate behaviour and it is worthwhile non-University providers contacting institutions whose students they house to ensure that copies of these are available within the accommodation and that students are treated consistently across all accommodation providers.

Social Distancing

Social distancing will reduce to 1 metre+ and this means that accommodation operators will need to make a number on ongoing adjustments to maintain this: things will not simply “go back to normal”.  Special arrangements need to be made in lounges and communal areas, lift management and reception and office facilities to ensure social distancing is maintained.

Cleaning and Preparing for New Tenant

There has been considerable discussion about how to turn around tenancies, particularly when outgoing tenants are leaving with only a short period until new tenants arrive.

For some suppliers, Unipol included, there has been a major changeover of tenancies in July and initial indications are that those turnarounds have gone well with students respecting “fallow periods” and booking moving-in slots as requested. Parents also reacted well to the advice they had been given to minimise their presence within the household.

UK Students Planning to Study Abroad in 2020-2021

One little-considered effect is that many of these students will not be able to do this and will be looking for accommodation. In some cases this will be for the whole year but in others this will be for term one only with the hope that student exchanges can take place in 2021. This “one term” group will be difficult to house because many suppliers will continue looking for annual lets.

International Students

The UKCISA website is worth consulting on detailed matters relating to international students.

PLANNING AHEAD FOR OCCUPANCY - WHAT THE SECTOR IS DOING

A remote meeting, attended by 31 members, was held of the National Codes of Standards Committee of Management on 15th July, 2020 and focused upon what arrangements members of the Codes had been making for the arrival of their students when they began to occupy the accommodation, as well as any other requirements that would need to be followed through the course of their stay.

Members were invited to give their responses to some questions, and a summary of those responses is provided here:

Will students need to book move-in time slots to ensure social distancing is achieved? If not what steps will be taken?

The majority of suppliers were asking students to book timeslots ahead of their arrival, with many also making contactless arrangements for the collection of keys and making of any payments required.

A number of providers have issued videos to help explain to students what to expect, both on arrival and throughout the period of their stay. Two examples are provided:

from Fresh Student Living

from iQ

Only one provider indicated that they were not requiring any pre-booking on arrival as they would be operating multiple check-in stations.

Will any other restrictions be placed on assistance from parents or others in the move-in process - if so, what?

Although most suppliers indicated that they would be restricting numbers who could accompany students on arrival, some were going to allow just one parent whilst others would permit two.

Most providers had ceased offering assistance to students with the movement of belongings on their arrival.

Will there be any other particular controls on those entering accommodation during move-in? Most staff working on receptions within buildings would wearing facemasks and those entering would be reminded of the need to maintain social distancing. Many had installed screens and most were making hand sanitizer available. Only one provider reported that they would be undertaking temperature checks.

What guidance was being given to contractors who need to access buildings?

Almost all suppliers have enhanced the procedures that they have in place for contractors when they need to access buildings. The most common requirement will be that external contractors would need to have completed a risk assessment and abide by a given protocol agreement.

A number of providers stated that students would be informed that they needed to vacate any room and/or area in which contractors were assessing or completing a repair, and at least one would be making it necessary for contractors to wear PPE.

Were students being provided with guidance on how to resolve or report any concerns that they may have about the actions and activities of those that they are sharing their accommodation with?

This was an issue which not all providers had yet completely settled on an approach to, and some stated that they believed this would be a significant challenge for them.

Some suppliers reported that they were looking at options such as behaviour agreements. In-room information was also being considered.

What plans had been made to adapt socialisation/welcome programmes?

Almost without exception the providers present reported that they had instigated virtual induction and socialisation programmes, with a variety of different online events available.

A few stated that they were also planning to make available some actual events, which would follow social distancing requirements.

BUILDINGS COMING ON-LINE IN SUMMER 2020

This has been an exceptionally difficult year for the construction industry with a near lock-down in England and Wales and a total lock-down in Scotland across most of March, April and May. The lockdown also badly affected the pipe-line of certain building materials and there continues to be shortages of certain materials.

2019 was a particularly bad year for the number of late PBSA buildings being delivered and the bad press that PBSA received last summer led to a general acceptance from all accommodation suppliers that communication between developers, managers, student tenants and universities and colleges needed to improve. Whilst in 2019 there were some exceptional examples of working together to overcome the dislocation to students caused by late-running construction, there were also some examples of poor practice that needed addressing.

Although there will be greater understanding of building delays this year, the effect of those delays may be more severe at this time with any disruption being an unforeseen ‘final straw’ for those affected. This will be particularly the case if international students and their self-isolation plans are affected.

The ANUK/Unipol National Codes has developed a revised Protocol on Late Buildings that has been issued to all members and this brings clarity as to how the Code will interpret and operate the relevant existing clauses within the Codes over this summer period. All members have been written to (on 29th May and 14th July 2020) and reminded of their obligations under the Code.

The approach and Protocol can be consulted here but briefly, in the event of a late building the National Code Administrator or their nominee) has asked for:

  • communication with tenants about delays including whether release has been offered and on what terms
  • the accuracy of advertising
  • assurances received from developers/builders
  • the likely hand over date
  • anticipated tenancy start date
  • the expected number of students who will be affected by an disruption.

All members were written to again (on 29th May and 14th July 2020) and reminded of their obligations under the Code in this area.

It is the National Codes’ view that by the 6th August 2020 all of those students whose tenancy might be affected by late construction should have been informed about this possibility. In the event of any subsequent investigation of a supplier in this area, a failure to have communicated by this time will be given due weight in any Audit Panel or Tribunal process. The “we’ll know soon” mantra, some 6-8 weeks before potential occupancy will not be good enough.

The information following was correct as of 26th July 2020 and will be updated weekly until further notice.

There were 71 new buildings covered by the Codes planning to come on line this summer providing an additional 20,736 beds. Of these 8, housing 1,622 students have already completed. 22, with 6,127 are known to be ready on time, as planned. 6 buildings, with 1,606 bed spaces are not now opening until 2021 and can therefore be discounted for the opening of term in 2020.

6 buildings with 2,207 bed spaces are known to be late. Most of these buildings are being occupied in part. It will be important that advertising materials has made it clear if certain communal amenities will not be available to tenants and future tenants.

There are 22 buildings (or 6,127 bed spaces) where the National Code Administrator has not received a progress update and this information must be provided by the 6th August 2020.

Notification of any Affected Educational Institution that a Delay in Construction May Effect their Students

It is important that any institution is informed of any disruption to their students. Under the private providers Code clause 3.7 says:

“Where a building is new, or undergoing refurbishment and the building programme is running late and where this may result in pre-let rooms not being ready for occupancy, the manager informs the future tenant at the earliest possibility of this likelihood its possible consequences for them and from whom at the provider they can access help with this matter.

The provider will also notify the NCA of this within one working day of the tenants having been notified, and what action they will be taking in respect of this. They will also notify the developer (and any other relevant parties) that they are taking this action and that this may result in the provider ceasing to market the accommodation;”

The “any other relevant parties” will now automatically include educational institutions whose students may be affected and members not notifying them “at the earliest possibility” will be considered in breach of this aspect of the Code.”

Where the completed PBSA building is delayed affecting occupancy, the level of disruption to students normally relates to how easy, or difficult, it is to provide alterative accommodation in a suitable location (as is required under the Code). Members with late buildings where there is not a ready surplus of supply should anticipate, and try and mitigate, the level of disruption that may occur to its tenant.

THE EFFECT OF THE PANDEMIC ON THE FORTHCOMING ACADEMIC YEAR

Most universities are planning to start their term in late September or early October. Some are planning a staggered start to the academic year (although normally first year students start earlier than returning students). A few universities have announced that certain taught postgraduate courses may begin in January.

Most universities are planning what is known as “blended learning” which is a mix of actual and virtual on-line teaching. Most universities will be streaming lectures so that lecture theatres can be used as seminar rooms (maintaining social distancing).

Many universities are requiring the wearing of face masks by staff and students in communal areas on campus and have chosen to retain social distancing at 2 meters.

Most freshers’ weeks will not take place in their traditional sense and most socialising will have to be undertaken within each residential household or between a small number of households (as permitted at that time), making that aspect of student accommodation even more important than it was before the pandemic. It has been observed that the lifting of restrictions on bars and restaurants will enable some wider socialising to take place away from the residential setting.

Unipol will be seeking to promote best practice in publicising initiatives to help socialisation within the Covid guidance and is keen to have examples of both on line and actual social activities that it can give wider publicity to.

Evidence on the 2020-2021 Intake

Fears that home intake will be reduced with students choosing to stay at home or defer entry rather than go to a University to study are lessening. On 9th July 2020 UCAS reported a 2.3% increase with 281,980 young people applying for a University place, despite there being 1.5% fewer 18 year olds in the population than last year. 2020 is also projected to be the final year of a UK-wide decline in the overall number of 18 year olds in the total population. EU applicants were -2% and non EU applicants were +10%. The overall effect is a +2% increase in applicants.

International student intake is still an unknown quantity and recent uncertainties over international travel and self-isolation requirements have caused further uncertainty. Many universities are planning for a 50% reduction in new international students.

The Higher Education Policy Institute published polling (of over 1,000 undergraduates) on 30th June 2020 showing that students want better communication about the next academic year, but have realistic expectations of what is to come.

The results show:

  • two-thirds of students feel positive about the communications, three times higher than the proportion who feel negative - 66% say the communications are ‘very clear’ or ‘quite clear’ against 21% who say they are ‘quite unclear’ or ‘very unclear’;
  • the majority of students are satisfied with the way their higher education institution has handled their remaining assessments for this academic year – 20% say they are ‘very satisfied’ and 43% say they are ‘quite satisfied’;
  • just over half of students (57%) are living away from their usual term-time residence and nearly a third (30%) of all students say they have received a refund on accommodation costs or early release from a contract
  • 75% of students expect increased hygiene, 71% expect some learning online and 71% expect social distancing measures but only 26% expect limitations to courses

SIGNING CONTRACTS AND CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATIONS

Most returning undergraduate students signed contracts with landlords (mainly off-street but some private and University PBSA) many months ago.

Many PBSA suppliers are giving students who have not already entered into contracts a promise of flexibility. There are several of these but Student Roost was one if the first and most advanced.

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP has written to all prospective new students saying:

“Those of you planning to begin your studies away from home may well have concerns about the impact the coronavirus outbreak could have on your ability to move into your term-time accommodation next academic year.

I am pleased to tell you that a number of universities and private accommodation providers are already considering how these impacts could be managed in accommodation contracts for the 2020/21 academic year to give you confidence to make your plans.

I welcome the actions of many university and private accommodation providers in waiving and reducing rents this summer, along with their efforts to support and care for their students through this difficult period. This gives me confidence in their ability to help us all navigate the unprecedented circumstances that make the future so hard to predict.

Those who have already signed an accommodation contract for next year and, because of this virus, think it may no longer fit your requirements, should talk directly to your housing provider. If you run into problems, you will be able to raise a complaint under one of the accommodation codes of practice as long as your provider is a code member. (The codes are at: www.thesac.org.uk  www.unipol.org.uk and www.rla.org.uk)

While I am confident that consumer protections are in place to help with your plans to move into halls or private housing next academic year, it is still important that you carefully read your accommodation contract before putting pen to paper.”

The “consumer protections” referred to relates to the guidance issued by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on how the coronavirus impacts on contract law, which is available here. This sets out the CMA’s view on how the law operates to help consumers understand their rights and help businesses treat their customers fairly. Students may be entitled to refunds from accommodation providers depending on the terms of their contract and their particular circumstances. If students need help, organisations such as Citizens Advice offer a free service, providing information and support.”

This guidance has greater resonance for allocations and rentals undertaken through a University where there is, of necessity, a link between the rental and the course. Private sector providers, although letting to students, normally do so using general tenancy arrangements (assured Shorthold Tenancies). Even so, the CMA Guidance must be taken seriously and clearly there would be a problem if the reason for renting student room was removed and a supplier tried to enforce full collection of rent.

Code Members and Flexible Contracts

Many Code members have provided options for tenants to flex their tenancy arrangements or withdraw from them if Covid-19 affects teaching and lockdown reoccurs. The National Code Administrator has written to all supplies asking for details of any reassurances given in order that ANUK/Unipol has a central record if this and any future complaints dealt with can be put in that context. It is important that any options students are given to change their contractual terms are clear and operated as described.

Most PBSA providers offer some sort of flexibility, normally falling under three areas:

  • travel bans affecting the ability to arrive at the property
  • visa restrictions stopping or affecting arrival times
  • flexible start dates on tenancies if universities change their start date.

Most have either updated or extended their usual cancellation policy.

As mentioned before, hardly any have mentioned anything to do with hardship or extenuating circumstances specifically.

From responses received (as of 8th July 2020) some level of contractual flexibility has been built into 70% of members’ contracts affecting some 252,917 tenants at this stage.

COMPLAINTS UNDER THE NATIONAL CODES ABOUT RENT REFUNDS

Students have been given details of the complaints system operated by all three approved Codes and the number of complaints in this area has increased.

In respect of the ANUK/Unipol National Code for Non-Educational Establishments the Code does not address matters relating to contractual obligations of landlords or tenants, as these are subject to statutory law.

Just as the Coronavirus pandemic was unforeseen, so there is no provision made for its effects within any of the National Codes. The Codes work by outlining members’ obligations and then seeking to enforce those undertakings and it is not possible simply to insert additional obligations to reflect the pandemic. Complaints about rent refunds will therefore fall outside of the current Code provisions and those lodging complaints will be informed of this.

The complaints system can and is being used in the following areas:

  • matters relating to mis-selling or not providing contracted services
  • setting unreasonable conditions for tenancy options. This would particularly be the case if a room had to be vacated in a period when Government “stay put” advice was in place
  • unnecessarily rigid and inflexible conditions being set by a supplier in matters relating to the tenancy which fail to appreciate the individual circumstances of the complainant.

Anyone making a complaint in this area is asked if they think they have any exceptional circumstances where their case should be considered individually by a supplier. If the Codes Complaints Investigator feels that the exceptional circumstances merits individual consideration these have been forwarded to the supplier for further consideration and it is expected that these representations will be properly considered and responded to in a timely manner by the supplier.

Students can also get advice from their students’ union, which may be in a position to advocate on their behalf.

LESSONS LEARNT FROM THE 2019-2020 REFUNDS ARRANGEMENTS

Most complaints have now been satisfactorily dealt with between the Code mechanisms and the providers concerned and, so far, it has not been necessary to refer a dispute to the Tribunal for resolution.

Unipol received a significant number of complaints regarding one supplier and, as a result of this cluster, the matter was investigated and an Investigating Officer’s report was produced. It may be useful to share some of the outcomes from that investigation which may help to inform how future policies in this area are developed and operated and how suppliers’ complaints systems can deal with these matters more effectively.

  • there was no obvious sign of any campaign behind the complaints received.
  • in releasing tenants from contracts many providers who set a deadline for leaving and clearing properties backed away from their own deadlines when they started getting large numbers of students contact them to say that the date was too early or special circumstances existed which meant they could not leave until a later date and that ought to be taken into consideration. Most providers decided to release tenants and refund money if individual tenants had good reasons for not meeting the deadlines. Many suppliers simply scrapped their deadline.
  • complaints are rarely generated by well-communicated decisions, even if tenants do not like those decisions. What stimulates significant numbers of complaints is almost always related to “fairness”. Consumers generally can take bad news but if they feel they are being treated unfairly then they invariably take action. 
  • many websites were well structured and worded to present their accommodation supplier as a caring, student-centred organisation and suppliers must avoid any disjuncture between how their values read and how tenants felt they had been treated.
  • local complaints need significant time and expertise to be processed properly and often, individually. Hard-pressed front-line staff could not be expected to absorb this additional workload and give the compliant received the time and consideration they needed.
  • the ANUK/Unipol Code is not a receptacle for matters that should have been resolved by the provide.

Why this is important?

Most suppliers would privately admit that they would approach flexible tenancies differently if that was necessary a second time around. In making promises or pledges about flexible tenancies going forward it is important such promises are clear and not over-complicated and remember, any deadlines fixed (although important for administrative purposes) are likely to be inappropriate for a few tenants who choose to will make separate representations as to why they are a special case.

In the event of a second or localised lock-down, it is likely more suppliers will consider rent reductions for all tenants rather than linking ending the contract with the student leaving their room with their belongings.

SCOTLAND - STUDENTS CAN GIVE NOTICE TO LEAVE A CONTRACT

The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 provides for:

  • a 7-day notice to leave period for those currently tied into a student accommodation contract; and
  • a 28-day notice to leave period for new agreements entered into.

Accommodation made vacant for reasons relating to coronavirus will be exempt from council tax in Scotland (page 38 of the Act).

COUNCIL TAX

There are concerns that private suppliers who end contracts early could be hit with council tax bills on their empty rooms. If the government wished to support those offering waivers an instruction to councils not to charge providers council tax would be helpful. Government agrees that as English local authorities do not currently levy council tax revenue from rooms in occupation by students this reassurance would not detract from existing revenues and is worth consideration.

NUS, the British Property Federation and Unipol, wrote to the Government asking for an assurance that Council Tax would not be charged on properties where students had been released from their contracts as part of the reaction to the pandemic and the Government response is disappointing saying they have no plans to do this. The letter of response can be consulted here

VERIFICATION UNDER THE NATIONAL CODE

Following a recent meeting of the Audit Panel, verifications started in May with the verification process being undertaken, where possible, on line. This system has now been positively evaluated and is being rolled out and the full verification system has recommenced this July. In-person visits will also be taking place.

It is planned that all partially completed buildings will be verified early after occupation to ensure all standards are being met whilst construction continues.

ADDITIONAL STAFF AND THANKS

Finally, just a word to once again reflect on how much hard work those within the sector are doing to say "hello" to thousands of students over the next few weeks. Those in the sector will know the old adage “we never close” applies to them.

Our Team

Unipol has set on a new National Code Officer (Jess Carrier) to help the National Code Administrator (Simon Kemp) and the Complaints Investigator (Victoria Peckitt) all overseen by our Assistant Chief Executive - Standards, Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed.

Jess Carrier is concentrating on monitoring buildings due to come on line this summer. Kelly-Anne Watson, who works closely with the Chief Executive of Unipol on a number of projects, is monitoring contract flexibility, dealing with compliant processes and is also keeping a watching brief of how suppliers are seeking to encourage socialisation and wellbeing in the forthcoming year.