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Student accommodation: what are your rights?

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

With numerous universities experiencing coronavirus outbreaks, thousands of students have been confined to their rooms or shared houses in the first weeks of the academic year.

With the majority of teaching taking place online for the foreseeable future, many will be wondering whether they can leave their accommodation and return to the family home.

Citizens Advice has looked into the financial situation for students living in halls or private accommodation.

Students in halls of residence

Students who want to end their contract with the university and move out of halls of residence are unlikely to be entitled to a refund.

However, in the Spring when the first lockdown came into force, many universities waived the rent due on university-owned accommodation.

Citizens Advice says it might be possible to put forward a “frustration” argument if a student can’t access their accommodation, for example because campus has been shut down, or it is impossible or illegal for the student to travel to the accommodation.

This might also be relevant if the purpose of the accommodation is radically altered. For instance, if it was closely tied to a student attending a course in a particular location, and the provider is now delivering the whole course remotely.

However, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic means that legal arguments have not yet really been tested in the context of student contracts, and so it is not yet clear to what extent these arguments might succeed.

An argument that any contract is “frustrated” (i.e. it is impossible to perform) is certainly less likely to succeed in a case where the accommodation continues to be available, but it is the tenant’s choice not to occupy it.

Students in privately rented accommodation

Most students move into shared houses in the private rented sector in their second and subsequent years of study.

Most will have signed an assured shorthold tenancy (AST) for 12 months.

Citizens Advice says that generally you are liable for any rent due until the end of your fixed term. Any guarantor – normally a parent – can be pursued for the money if it isn’t paid.

Some tenancy agreements contain a break clause. But this would be unusual in a student tenancy agreement where the letting is intended to be for an academic year, and the landlord is only likely to be able to re-let it for the following academic year.

If you share accommodation with other people, then unless you each have a separate agreement, you are likely to be jointly and separately liable for rent.

This means that the landlord can pursue any of the tenants (or their guarantor) for any rent due under the joint agreement, regardless of which tenant failed to pay their share.

That said, it’s still worth trying to negotiate with your landlord, and they may agree to release you from the tenancy early, or to waive or reduce rent if you are not living in the accommodation.

What do the experts say?

Amy Hughes, senior housing expert at Citizens Advice, says: “It must be very frustrating for students that the academic year hasn’t started in the way they would have hoped.

“Unfortunately, there’s not much good news for students who decide to change households for the medium to long-term, by returning to their family home for example. It’s likely that in many cases they will be tied into their accommodation agreements and not entitled to any refund.

“It’s always worth getting in touch with your landlord and trying to negotiate. But realistically, if there is no obligation for them to release you from the contract, they may well be unwilling to do so.

“Where the landlord is the university, they may be more sympathetic to a short-term reduction in rent, or ending a contract early, if there is no longer any reason for you to remain in halls.

“However, it is early in the academic year, and it may be difficult to find alternative halls of residence accommodation if a student gives up their place, but later wishes to return.”