The first section relating to the summer term has been updated on 14th April 2021, the remainder was updated n 9th March 2021 and will be updated further over the next few days.

This update includes information on the following topics:

  • Students Returning for the Summer Term
  • New and Returning Students Travelling from Overseas
  • Students Returning to Higher Education for Spring Term and comment
  • Students who have Returned to their Accommodation
  • Students Continuing to Return to their Accommodation and Easter
  • How are universities reacting to the phased return of students?
  • Government Announces Additional £50 million to Support University Students Impacted by Covid-19
  • The UK Accommodation Forum
  • Scotland and Wales
  • Updated Government Guidance (MHCLG) to Landlords and Tenants
  • 2021 Rent Refunds and Contracts
  • Code Complaints
  • House Hunting for 2021-2022
  • Scotland - Students Can Give Notice to Leave a Contract

STUDENTS RETURNING FOR THE SUMMER TERM

On the evening of 13th April 2021 the Government finally updated its guidance for when students can return to campus after Easter which can be consulted at

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/977819/Students_returning_to__and_starting__higher_education_in_the_spring_term_130421.pdf

Once again, this Guidance (Students returning to, and starting, higher education during Spring and Summer 2021. Guidance for higher education providers April 2021) is issued to higher education providers only.

The Guidance is particularly disappointing because it says:

Following the review announced in the COVID-19 Response - Spring 2021 (Roadmap) of when all remaining higher education students can return to in person teaching and learning, the Government confirms that these students should return no earlier than 17 May, alongside Step 3 of the Roadmap.

As was announced in February, students and institutions will be given a week’s notice of any reopening in accordance with the timing of Step 3.

A return at Step 3 will be coherent with the opening of more indoor facilities within Step 3 and will leave a short window for in-person teaching and cocurricular activities to boost student engagement and employability before the end of the academic year.

The government recognises the difficulties and disruption that this may cause for many students and their families. The Roadmap is designed to maintain a cautious approach to the easing of restrictions.

Higher education providers can reopen facilities in line with wider government guidance for Step 2 of the Roadmap.

The recent Article on Wonkhe by Jim Dickinson gave accurate forewarning of what will come as a blow to many students and institutions:

“On Tuesday iNews reported that sources involved in Whitehall discussions said the government was prioritising lifting restrictions on other sectors over getting students back on campus. So it’s safe to assume that an in-principle decision from government has now been confirmed – it’s Step 3 rather than Step 2 for the “rest” of students to “return” to campus.”

https://wonkhe.com/wonk-corner/are-we-returning-to-campus-after-easter/

As many accommodation providers will know, after a fall in occupancy when some students returned home for Easter, students are now choosing to return to their accommodation and occupancy rates are expected to reach pre-Easter levels over the next few days. Travel restrictions were eased on 29th March when the “stay at home rule” ended.

NEW AND RETURNING STUDENTS TRAVELLING FROM OVERSEAS

The Guidance has been updated to stress that those travelling overseas will need to pay regard to and comply with border measures that have been recently introduced:

  • British and Irish Nationals, or third country nationals with residence rights in the UK will be able to enter the UK if they have been in or transited through a 'red list’ country in the last 10 days, but they will be required to quarantine in a managed quarantine hotel on arrival for ten days without exception.

  • students who have been in, or transited through, a 'red list’ country in the last 10 days and who are not British or Irish Nationals, or third country nationals with residence rights will not be granted access to the UK

  • all international arrivals who have departed or transited through any country outside the Common Travel Area (but not on the red list) should self-isolate immediately in their own accommodation for 10 days when they arrive in the UK

  • students will need to book a Travel Test Package before travelling to the UK, which involves taking a test on day two and day eight of their quarantine. Students not travelling from a ‘red list’ country, who do not need to quarantine in a managed quarantine hotel, may be able to exit self-isolation early via Test to Release.

STUDENTS RETURNING TO HIGHER EDUCATION FOR SPRING TERM

The Government gave further information about students returning to campus in Guidance issued on 22nd February 2021 and that guidance can be consulted at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/963446/HE_guidance_spring_term_220221_FINAL.pdf

The Government continue to adopted a two-stage return to campus.

Stage One - The first stage of return (in addition to certain courses that were allowed to return from 4th January) took place on, or after, Monday 8th March 2021. The Guidance says:

We are now advising providers that they can resume in-person teaching and learning for students who are studying practical or practice-based (including creative arts) subjects and require specialist equipment and facilities from 8th March. Providers should not ask students to return if their course can reasonably be continued online.”

The inclusion of the creative arts in this phase is important because many courses could not be fully taught on line and performance and collaborative working with other students is normally a central part of the course.

The effect of this partial return is still being evaluated.

Stage Two - is not yet clear and further plans will be announced in April. “The government will review, by the end of the Easter holidays, the options for timing of the return of remaining students. This review will take account of the latest data and will be a key part of the wider roadmap steps. Students and providers will be given a week’s notice ahead of any further return.

For planning purposes “Easter holidays” is likely to mean 16th-18th April and therefore new Guidance can be expected around 9th-11th April.

Asymptomatic testing arrangements will be put in place for students on returning to University, “and twice weekly thereafter, to reduce and better manage outbreaks of coronavirus.”

Where testing has already been in place, the evidence from universities is that student take-up has, so far, been low.

The Government are still saying that where large numbers of students are returning then those arrivals should be staggered.

An important part of the Guidance is:

Once students have returned to their term-time accommodation they must remain living there unless an exemption to the national restrictions on leaving home and gatherings applies. They must only travel home where they have a legally permitted reason to do so.

This emphasises that when students move to their University town or City, then they are covered by the general restrictions on visiting applicable to the rest of the population.

There is also greater clarity on academic facilities that institutions should be providing, outside of face-to-face teaching on campus.

Providers should consider appropriate provision to support access to university facilities for the purposes of online learning and to prevent isolation and mental ill health of students.

We would expect university libraries to stay open to provide library services, including study spaces, in a COVID-secure environment. However, students should not return to in-person teaching unless they study a practical course and require specialist facilities and equipment.

The Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan, wrote to all education providers on 25th February 2021 giving further details about returning and also explaining about how teacher assessed A level results would operate for the 2021-2022 intake (dealt with later in this copy). A copy of that letter can be consulted here.

Comment

This Guidance is specifically written for Higher Education Providers and is geared to encouraging students to stay where they are to reduce transmission of the virus across the country. The Guidance has little to say about student accommodation provided outside of the educational institution under normal landlord and tenant arrangements.

Within other guidance “Government Guidance (MHCLG) to Landlords and Tenants (see links below) it is also clear that tenants are entitled to continue to take up their tenancies.

Students Who have Returned to their Accommodation

Accommodation providers will know that the number of students who have returned to their accommodation in their town or City of study has increased steadily since the beginning of the New Year. Unipol estimates that:

  • about 10% of students remained over the Christmas period, mainly international students
  • a further 15% of students returned immediately in the New Year (around 4th January 2021 before the Government Guidance was issued)
  • throughout January, there was a consistent flow of students returning accounting for a further 20% of students
  • there was an increase in the first week of February as the review date of 22nd February for schools was announced of around 10%.

This increase in occupancy resulted in an increase in parties and gatherings in early February (although there is some evidence that these may have now “peaked”). It is of significance that the recent Government Guidance mentions:

The government has now introduced a new £800 fine for those attending house parties, including in halls of residence, which will double for each repeat offence to a maximum level of £6,400. These fines will apply to those who attend illegal gatherings of more than 15 people from outside their household. Providers should ensure that students are aware of their designated ‘household’, particularly if they live within large scale student accommodation.”

Unipol has looked at a number of occupancy estimates within the accommodation sector and estimates that:

  • 55% of students are now present in University provided accommodation. This number has been rising week-on-week but this may well stop if refunds are made for nom-occupancy
  • 65% of students are present in private sector PBSA. Again, this number is rising week-on-week
  • 68% of students are present in off-street HMOs.

This means that there are students present in virtually every house and flat and those running PBSA and off-street houses are running a full landlord/tenant service. Many students regard themselves as having “left home” at the beginning of term and are keen to re-establish their independence after visiting home for Christmas.

The majority of students with accommodation needs are now living in a town or City allied to their place of study.

Students Continuing to Return to their Accommodation

Unipol expects that there will be a significant rise in returners between 7th-14th March. Many students are tired of living at home and want to be with their friends and although the 8th March return will only apply to a sub-set of students, this has been seized on my some as a date when students might return to be reunited with other friends.

Easter

It is expected that occupancy levels over Easter are likely to be high with many students who are now living in their University town or City not returning home over that period. 

As the weather improves, the availability and management of outdoor spaces will become particularly important, especially after the 29th March when the general Government Guidance on households mixing allows for “meeting more of your friends and family outside, including in gardens - either as two households or subject to the Rule of Six.”

Scotland and Wales

On 25th February the Scottish Government updated its information on Student Information Scotland https://www.studentinformation.gov.scot/coronavirus

Because of the tiered system operating in Scotland their advice on travel is geared to that saying “The legislation on indoor gatherings and travel restrictions in level 3 and level 4 areas makes it clear that any mixing of households or any travel to/from a level 3 or 4 area can only take place in exceptional circumstances or where there is a reasonable excuse. Otherwise, there is a risk of committing a criminal offence.”

The Scottish Government also has a phased return approach but has not yet announced when those return phases (other than that already operating from 4th January) will operate from. Further information can be obtained at https://www.gov.scot/news/colleges-and-university-returns-postponed/

Advice from the Welsh Government on returning for the Spring term can be found at https://gov.wales/higher-education-coronavirus-guide 

A useful FAQ is I am living at a term time address - can I go home?

Yes, students who routinely spend time both away at university and at home are considered to have two households for the purposes of the coronavirus restrictions.

Under alert level 4, you should not travel home for a visit unless you have a reasonable excuse to travel such as at the start or end of term, for work or because of concerns about health and   wellbeing.

Advice from the Northern Ireland Assembly on returning for the Spring term can be found at https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/coronavirus-covid-19-student-movement-and-plans-new-term

HOW ARE UNIVERSITIES REACTING TO THE PHASED RETURN OF STUDENTS?

Some universities will see a significant number of students return to campus in March, others are looking at postponing restarting face-to-face teaching until after the Easter holidays. A few universities are saying they will continue with on-line teaching until the end of the academic year.

On 4th February the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, gave an interview to The Tab newspaper https://thetab.com/uk/2021/02/04/exclusive-government-aims-to-allow-students-back-to-uni-on-8th-march-193938 and went on to clarify that whilst universities may have independently decided to postpone all face-to-face tuition for the rest of the term, for clarity’s sake the Government “will be giving them the option to alter those plans or for those who haven’t announced that to bring students back.

In a normal academic year the third term is very much a “sweep up” term for many students leading to examinations and much study is over by mid May. It is difficult to see how this will be the case in 2021 where many students needing face to face teaching or using laboratory or other equipment, are way behind in their studies

Some universities are clearly looking at the possibility of running a full third term of blended learning to enable them to catch up on essential teaching that cannot be undertaken online

In some cases, for final year students, term may be extended.

Where the Government is indicating students can return to campus, those educational providers deciding not to offer this could be expected to face renewed pressure to refund students who will have missed a normal academic year.

GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCES ADDITIONAL £50 MILLION TO SUPPORT UNIVERSITY STUDENTS IMPACTED BY COVID-19

On 2nd February 2021 the Government announced

  • new financial support for students
  • a total of £70 million in financial year to help with additional costs like alternative accommodation (£20 million had been announced in December and a further £50 million was announced in February)
  • the majority of students would continuing their studies remotely, as part of the measures to fight coronavirus.

This funding means that universities will be able to help students impacted by the pandemic, for example those facing additional costs for alternative accommodation, loss of employment, or extra costs to access their teaching online. Universities will distribute the funding and will be able to prioritise the funding to those most in need of help.

The Office for Students has now announced the individual additional hardship allocations from the December £20m initiative and these can be found at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/additional-funding-for-student-hardship-for-2020-21/

The allocation of the additional £50m is likely to be decided soon and will probably be announced on the same link. As the formula for deciding the £50m is likely to be the same, for planning purposes the increase could be increased on a ratio of 2:5.

In some cases this funding is supposed to be spent not later than 31st March 2021 and there are concerns that this will not be possible within such a short time. The National Association of Student Money Advisers has led calls for an extension of time to allocate this funding and their letter can be seen here.

THE UK STUDENT ACCOMMODATION FORUM

Unipol has established an online set of Zoom meetings entitled The UK Student Accommodation Forum. These events are free and attended by 40 participants from across the accommodation sector and Government. These are short 1 hour meetings held between 11.00am and midday and consist of two expert contributions (about 10 minutes each) followed by general discussion. Any “issues of the moment” also gets a 10-minute slot. Details can be found on Unipol's Training and Events Page.

The next event is on 11th March - Mental Health in Student Accommodation

Other events are planned (all on Thursdays at 11.00am) on:

25th March - Dealing with Complaints about Student Accommodation which is being held with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)

Unipol will also be arranging a special event to analyse the winners and losers in the 2020-2021 academic year following the release of UCAS and HESA data.

We remain grateful to CRM Students whose sponsorship have enabled the Forum to continue its work.

UPDATED GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE (MHCLG) TO LANDLORDS AND TENANTS

Updated guidance was issue on 16th February 2021 and can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-and-renting-guidance-for-landlords-tenants-and-local-authorities/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-landlords-and-tenants

This guidance and the comments on students has not yet been updated following the new guidance on returning at Easter.

There are a few key points in this guidance worth highlighting.

Rent Payments
The guidance continues to stress that “Tenants should continue to pay rent and abide by all other terms of their tenancy agreement to the best of their ability…Tenants who are unable to do so should speak to their landlord at the earliest opportunity.

In many if not most cases, the COVID-19 outbreak will not affect tenants’ ability to pay rent. If your ability to pay will be affected, it’s important to have an early conversation with your landlord. Rent levels agreed in your tenancy agreement remain legally due and you should discuss with your landlord if you are in difficulty.”

Repairs
It also stressed that “Landlords can take steps to carry out repairs and safety inspections across all tiers provided these are undertaken in line with public health advice and the relevant coronavirus (COVID-19) legislation.” In Scotland, the ability to make improvements during the lockdown (such as decorating) and ben reduced but essential repairs are still allowed.

Moving in
In response to the FAQ “Can I move into new shared accommodation with other people?” the answer is “Yes. There is no restriction on people moving permanently into new shared accommodation e.g. a shared flat or house in multiple occupation.”

Viewings for Lettings
House viewings can proceed across all tiers provided these are undertaken in line with public health advice and the relevant coronavirus (COVID-19) legislation. Any relevant local advice should also be followed.

Tenants’ safety should be the priority of letting agents and landlords. Where possible, virtual viewings should be used before visiting properties in person in order to minimise public health risks. If any member of either the household being viewed, or the household undertaking a viewing is showing symptoms of COVID-19 or is self-isolating, then an in-person viewing should be delayed until the viewing is able to take place.”

2021 RENT REFUNDS AND CONTRACTS

Many universities have announced that they are refunding rents to their tenants where student have not returned to their accommodation. They are often urging private accommodation providers to follow their lead. There is a significant difference between how the educational sector, which continues to collect full academic fees, may consider rent refunds as compared with mainstream private providers.

A few general observations:

  • refunds in 2020-2021 have been less generous, from both universities and private providers, than between March and June in 2020
  • most universities and big private providers have given 50% rent refund or a 100% rent refund if students are not present between 4th January and 15th February (mostly extended to 8th March and in some cases extended to mid-April)
  • in off-street housing refunds are less prevalent (as before)

The concentration on refunding rents misses out one of the big positives this year and that is many accommodation providers have operated contractual arrangements in a much more flexible manner. They have:

  • allowed students to leave contracts to commute from home
  • have taken a constructive line on special cases where tenants can demonstrate exceptional circumstances have affected them
  • taken a much better line on releasing students from contracts when they have made out a case
  • international students who have not managed to make it to the UK have mainly been refunded.

There is an interesting article on Money Saving Expert which can be consulted at https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/news/2021/01/students-face-rent-rebate-lottery-as-post-xmas-university-return/

This says “Ultimately, students have no more right to a rent reduction or payment freeze than any other renter – and this applies to those renting both university-provided accommodation and private housing. But some universities have confirmed they will provide rent refunds or discounts, and as they have a pastoral duty of care you may find they're more likely to offer help than private landlords.”

Unipol decided on its own policy at a Board meeting held on 21st January 2020 which was:

  • that as students living in off-street and city-centre properties had received a 50% rent reduction in July and August on the anticipation of disruption to the start of term (which had not taken place) these students had already received a rent reduction and no further reduction was given
  • students living in PBSA were given a rent rebate of £420, regardless of whether they were living in the property or not
  • students were given the option of leaving their contracts if they made out a special case between 4th-22nd January and 35 tenants were released.

CODE COMPLAINTS

A number of complaints are being received by the National Code Administrator about rent refunds in the 2020-2021 academic year and guidance has been given to students about how these complaints will be approached. This guidance and information can be consulted at https://www.nationalcode.org/make-a-complaint

Additional information on the number of complaints received can now be consulted on the National Codes website at https://www.nationalcode.org/complaints-data

From 8th December 2020 to 4th February 2021 the National Code Complaints and Enquiries received 117 complaints which fell into the following categories:

Seeks release/refund 51
Condition upon arrival 12
Repairs 10
Customer Service 8
Contract/rent 6
Deposit 6
Covid-19  Release 2019-2020 4
Covid-19  Restrictions 4
Possessions disposed of 4
Covid-19 ASB/risks 2
Noise/ASB 2
Construction work 1
Damp/mould 1
Late building 1
Many and various breaches 1
Pests/Rodents 2
Grand Total 117

An additional cluster of 48 complaints were also received in respect of a single large private provider following some social media activity. Again, additional guidance can be found on the “Complaints” link given above.

HOUSE-HUNTING for 2021-2022

House hunting for the following year began for many students in November. Although there has been a slightly slower start to this process this year, between November and February house hunting for returning students is still continuing

Many suppliers are offering “cooling off” periods or flexible contract options for next year’s contracts because of the current situation. As an example, at Unipol all students renting a room in PBSA for next year will be able to give notice on any agreement they sign with Unipol up to 1st March 2021 and this would end their 2021-2022 obligations. This Peace of Mind Promise will be given to tenants when they sign up and they will be able to withdraw on-line from their contract any time before 12.00 midnight on the 1st March 2021. By 1st March 47 students had returned rooms, about 4% of those let. Around 50% of those returning rooms were related to Covid, the remainder were using the Promise as a booking device.

A few observations can be made:

  • for students looking to move into shared houses in the community (referenced as off-street properties) house hunting patterns are relatively normal, although the market is moving slightly slower caused by students returning home earlier in the year than normal

  • lettings or next year in PBSA are significantly slower than normal with an initial reduction in retained tenants, perhaps reflecting a reaction against the tighter social controls operated, particularly on first year students, by PBSA providers

  • few physical viewings have taken place with most students looking at images or video tours on line

  • student preferences seem to be favouring both larger shared houses and those with good outdoor space (no doubt as a reaction to previous lockdowns and periods of self-isolation)

  • the market is expected to continue slower as students return to University later in January than they might have normally done. Many PBSA providers are reporting house hunting bookings are down between 12%-15% the end of February 2021. House hunting for returning students 2021-2022 will be more active in March and April than is normal

  • there are concerns that, owing to the difficulties in international travel that international student numbers for 2021-2022 will be affected.

SCOTLAND - STUDENTS CAN GIVE NOTICE TO LEAVE A CONTRACT

The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 became law on 27 May 2020 and introduced notice to leave periods for students in halls of residence and Purpose Built Student Accommodation. This means students:

  • who have entered into a student residential tenancy before 27 May 2020 and have occupied the property, can give 7 days’ notice to their accommodation provider
  • who have already entered into a student residential tenancy before 27 May 2020 but have not yet occupied the property, can give 28 days’ notice to their accommodation provider
  • who enter into a student residential tenancy after 27 May 2020 can give 28 days’ notice to their accommodation provider.

Students can only exercise these notice to leave periods for reasons relating to COVID-19 and for so long as the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 is in force. The Act will be in force until 31 March 2021.

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