'I'm paying thousands for student housing I can't use'

By Simon Read
Business reporter

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image copyrightMaya Cooper
image captionMaya Cooper is experiencing "stress and anxiety" due to rent charges

Maya Cooper can't go back to university in Liverpool due to Covid restrictions, but she's still being charged thousands for accommodation.

This is causing her "stress and anxiety" she says.

She has been in London since mid-December when students could travel back for the Christmas break.

But she was unable to return to Liverpool at the beginning of January, because travel was restricted from Tier 4 areas, as the capital had become.

"We've been expected to pay £1,897 for January and there is another rent instalment of £1,541 due in April," the second year student tells the BBC.

"I told my accommodation I was unable to travel back as my course is not essential and there will be no future face-to-face teaching for this academic year.

"But they just suggested: 'You can return to use your accommodation for personal study'."

Even though people are receiving fines for travelling for non-essential reasons, she says the landlord insists it isn't against the law.

"They expect my flatmate and me to pay the full amount without any reductions, which is causing me stress and anxiety, especially as I am also having to help with rent and bills at home," Ms Cooper says.

image copyrightBen McGowan
image captionUniversity of Manchester students have been calling for a rent strike over the issue of unused rooms

According to government guidance, most students will not be able to return to university until at least 8 March, with the exception of groups including medical, education, and policing students.

Ms Cooper is not alone in being put under financial pressure during these difficult times.

Only about one in 20 students with private landlords has got a refund for accommodation they haven't been able to use, according to campaign group Save The Student.

Its research suggests students have been forced to fork out nearly £1bn for accommodation they've been unable to use during the 2020-21 academic year.

On average they've lost out £1,621, the group reckons.

"£1bn is a huge price for students to pay and the total will keep going up, making it clear once again that students are among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic," says Jake Butler, Save the Student's money expert.

"A lot of accommodation providers, particularly universities, have reacted well but many students, mostly those renting from private landlords, have been left without a leg to stand on."

image copyrightJosh Sandiford
image captionJosh Sandiford has lost about £4,500 in rent in the last year

Student and freelance journalist Josh Sandiford is from Birmingham and in his third year at Manchester University, studying politics and economics.

He told BBC Radio 4's You & Yours programme that he has lost about £4,500 in rent in the current academic year.

He and his friends signed for the student property during the first national lockdown in 2020, expecting to return to university in September.

But due to coronavirus restrictions, Josh hasn't been back since. And as he wasn't available for the original viewing, he's never even seen the property.

"I'm now in the unfortunate position of having to pay thousands of pounds for a property that I've never even been to," he says.

Having contacted his landlord, he was offered the opportunity to find someone to take up his room rental instead - rather than a rent reduction.

Although he says the conversation was "positive", he feels it's "unfair" he's still having to pay for a room he has never used.

'Cash cows'

"Students have been consistently exploited and ignored during this pandemic," said Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice president for higher education.

"We are seen as cash cows, with many stuck paying extortionate rents for properties they either cannot use or cannot afford."

Campaigners say the government has promised to look at the poor situation students are in "but we're yet to see any effective action", said Mr Butler.

"I would urge the government to work with landlords and universities to offer students financial support to cover any rent payments for accommodation that cannot be accessed," he said.

Maya Cooper is also looking to MPs for help. "My flatmate and I have contacted the shadow minister for Further Education and a local MP about the issue.

"We've even offered for my dad to remove my belongings from my room as he lives in Liverpool but even after that, my accommodation said they wouldn't allow any reduction to the rent."

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