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OfS publishes briefing on housing woes during pandemic

Regulator advises universities on tackling Covid-19 student accommodation issues

The Office for Students has published advice for universities on how to help students with accommodation problems during the coronavirus pandemic, including worries over rent.

In the first of a series of briefing notes on how universities are supporting students during the Covid-19 pandemic, the regulator highlighted challenges students face with accommodation, such as fears over rent payments and refunds.

The OfS said many students who have returned to their family homes “are worried about paying rent for accommodation they are no longer using”. As of 11 April, 52 universities had yet to decide whether they would refund students or had chosen not to do so, according to student housing charity Unipol.

In the briefing the OfS explained that “the government advised students to return to their out-of-term homes if possible (although only if they were able to do so without using public transport)” before the lockdown began on 23 March.

But in a discussion hosted by The Student Room on 10 April, universities minister Michelle Donelan told students the government “has always issued guidance and instructions based on Public Health England advice and I can assure you that we never instructed students to return to their permanent addresses”. Research Professional News has contacted the Department for Education for comment.

Elsewhere in the briefing, the OfS said rent arrears may become “a pressing problem for many students” as part-time jobs dry up and students’ parents may face financial difficulties, and it advised universities to encourage landlords “to be flexible in the current unprecedented circumstances”.

But the watchdog admitted universities could themselves “potentially suffer further loss of income from their student halls” if restrictions on movement continue and students become worried about paying for accommodation in September. If students believe their accommodation provider is behaving unfairly during the pandemic, the OfS say the landlord can be reported to the Competition and Markets Authority.

To help students through the pandemic, the OfS urged universities to provide clear and up-to-date information on how accommodation is being maintained and kept safe and how students can self-isolate in communal areas, as well as how universities are working with private landlords on rent payments and what help students can expect if they are unable to pay their rent.