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Can students claim a rent refund as they're told not to return to uni? What you need to know

Most students across the UK have been told to stay where they are due to Covid-19 concerns and avoid physically returning to university for now – with a few exceptions, such as those on medical, vet and teaching courses. If you're paying for accommodation and are wondering if you can get a rent refund because you can't use it, we've rounded up your rights.

Update: 12 January 2021: This info is rapidly changing and Unite and Student Roost have now confirmed they will offer rent refunds to students unable to return to university. We are no longer updating this story below, so if you want to be certain of what your university or landlord is doing it is best to contact them directly. 

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.

See our Students Section for guides with more help on everything from student loans to budget planners and a round-up of student bank accounts.

I live in university accommodation – what can I try and do to get a refund?

Here's what you can try and do to get a refund if you live in university-provided accommodation:  

1. Check if your university has a refunds policy in place. There's no legal requirement on unis – or private landlords for that matter – to give your money back, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has today (5 January 2021) said the Government in England "will have a look" at uni accommodation costs to ensure students are being treated fairly.

That said, it's still worth contacting your uni in the meantime to find out if it will offer refunds. When we carried out a straw poll of nine major universities three said they'd offer some form of rent refund or discount, and another told us before the English lockdown announcement (on 4 January 2020) that it would do the same, although we're checking this hasn't changed. Here's the latest we have from the nine universities, which reflects their positions post-lockdown except where stated otherwise:

  • University of Bath: Under review
  • University of Birmingham: Had said pre-lockdown that no refunds or discounts would be offered but it's confirming if this still applies
  • University of Bristol: 30% rent reduction from 19 December 2020 for seven weeks, plus separate 10-day rent rebate during December 
  • University of Cumbria: 20% discount for the full year. Checking if this still applies post-lockdown
  • Lancaster University: Under review 
  • University of London: Under review 
  • University of Manchester: 30% discount for semester one (freshers week to 31 January 2021) 
  • Manchester Metropolitan University: Rent refunded for the period between 4 January 2021 and your eventual return date
  • Middlesex University: Under review

If your uni does provide help, ask how much of a discount or refund you'll get and how it'll work – for example, if you need to continue to pay your rent and then claim it back at a later date, or if it'll be taken off a future rent bill.

2. Check your tenancy agreement. If your uni initially says no, check your tenancy agreement to make sure there definitely is no get-out clause. It's unlikely, but look to see if your tenancy agreement includes any clauses on when you may be entitled to a rent rebate or discount for any time you can't spend in accommodation.

3. Lobby your university or student union. If your uni has no policy in place and there's no provision for a refund in your contract, it might be possible to argue that your contract has been "frustrated" – ie, it is impossible to perform if you can't access your accommodation because it is impossible or illegal to travel. That's because the Competition and Markets Authority's (CMA) views on consumer protection law also applies to higher education providers.

Given many universities say their policies are under review, it's worth trying to lobby your university to offer refunds using this clause or by explaining your own circumstances. The National Union of Students (NUS) says students can contact their student union or student association to find out how best to go about campaigning for this.

However, charity Citizens Advice warns that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic means legal arguments on student contracts haven't been tested in court yet, so it is not clear to what extent this 'frustrated' argument might succeed. This argument is also less likely to stand up where accommodation is available but you decide not to take it up.

I live in private rented accommodation – what can I try and do to get a refund?

Private rented accommodation can include anything from big blocks managed by companies to homes let out by individual landlords or estate agents – but here it's likely to be much harder to get any money back as there's no duty of care as with universities.

1. Speak to your accommodation provider or landlord. Both landlords and tenants may be financially hurting due to the pandemic, so forbearance, tolerance and meeting in the middle is best for both. It's worth asking for help, but some of the major university accommodation management companies told us refunds are unlikely: 

  • Homes for Students: Told us prior to the English lockdown announcement that refunds depend on location. We've asked if this is still the case and will update this story when we know more.
  • Student Roost: Under review following the English lockdown announcement.
  • Unite: Told us prior to the English lockdown that refunds would not be offered – we've asked if this still stands and will update this story when we know more.

When it comes to individual landlords, those with mortgages can apply for a payment holiday if their tenants are struggling to pay – so have the conversation. Yet it's important to understand that private tenants, including students, don't have a right to a payments holiday as mortgage holders do. See Renters' Covid Help for more.

If you're struggling to make rental payments, bear in mind that evictions in England and Wales are currently only banned until next Monday (11 January), and this has yet to be extended.

2. Check your tenancy agreement. You signed a rental agreement contract and the fact you're not able to make use of your accommodation is not the fault of a private landlord. But it's worth double-checking to see if your tenancy agreement includes any clauses about whether you may be entitled to a rent rebate or discount for any time your can't spend in the property.

Check if you qualify for other support

If you can't get help on rent directly from your accommodation provider, it's worth checking if you qualify for any other support. For example, if you're a student living in rented accommodation in England, Scotland and Wales (council tax doesn't apply in Northern Ireland) and everyone else living with you is a student, you can get a 100% council tax discount.

Meanwhile, the Government has announced a fund of up to £20 million to help students studying in England who are most in need of support during the coronavirus crisis. This is to cover exceptional hardship. You can apply for it by contacting your university and asking about its hardship fund. Outside England, it's also worth asking if your uni offers similar support.

See our round-up of Student Discounts and Deals for further help cutting costs.

When can students return to university?

Here's when you can expect to return to university based on where you're studying:

  • English universities: Students to study from home until at least mid-February. The only exceptions are those studying medicine, dentistry, subjects allied to medicine/health, veterinary science, education (initial teacher training), social work or courses which require professional, statutory and regulatory body assessments and/or mandatory activity which is scheduled for January and can't be rescheduled.

  • Northern Irish universities: Return dates staggered with practical and placement students expected to return first. Exact return dates will be determined by unis and communicated to students.

  • Scottish universities: Returns will be staggered with detailed guidance published in the coming days.

  • Welsh universities: Return dates will be staggered and students should not return until they are notified by their university.

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