By Daniella Theis
Student accommodation provider Unite Students have confirmed that Scottish tenants do not have to provide evidence when terminating their lease for reasons related to Covid-19.
The policy U-turn happened after the Scottish Government updated its official guidance for students returning to college or university for term two.
The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 grants permission for students living in purpose-built student accommodation to hand in 28-days’ notice to bring tenancies to an end earlier. The Act came to place in May 2020, but due to missing government guidance and specification of the Act’s terms, some accommodation providers decided to impose different terms on students seeking to end their tenancies.
Current government guidance prohibits students to return to their term time accommodation if they left to stay at their home address during winter break. This has resulted in many students paying for accommodation they now cannot stay in.
In a letter sent to students, Richard Lochhead – Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science – confirmed that university and college campuses and accommodation will be open only for students “who have remained over the winter break,” and other “exceptional” returners. He said: “The Act does not require students who wish to terminate their agreements to confirm what their reason relating to Coronavirus is. Nor does it require them to provide evidence of that reason, nor does it require accommodation providers to approve the reason. I, therefore, do not expect accommodation providers to ask for evidence from students or refuse to accept a notice due to a lack of reasons being given or because they disagree with the reasons being provided.”
However, several Scottish students previously reported that the accommodation provider asked them to provide additional evidence to terminate their lease agreements for reasons related to Covid-19. Such evidence included having to prove that their course was moved online for the rest of the semester, or that they were experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic.
As a response to the MSP’s letter and changed government guidance, a Unite Students spokesperson said: “We have a strong track record in supporting students and it’s been our priority throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Our policy on this issue was revised a few weeks ago, in line with updated government guidance.
“Our tenants in Scotland are not required to provide evidence to be released from their tenancy contracts due to Covid-19. However, our standard cancellation policy still applies for requests not related to Covid-19 and for those we may require further evidence on a case-by-case basis. Any student who is struggling financially should talk to us and contact their university student finance team for further support.”
For months, NUS Scotland and student unions across the country campaigned for the government to offer more support and guidance for students. Part of these efforts is NUS Scotland’s #StudentsDeserveBetter campaign. The campaign, among other things, appealed to student accommodation providers to be considerate towards students stuck in tenancy agreements for accommodation they cannot return to.
Benn Rapson – VP Welfare at Strathclyde Student’s Association – sent an open letter to Unite Students urging the accommodation provider to “reconsider their position” after reports of students having to provide evidence to end their lease first emerged. Rapson has since additionally also established the Strathclyde Housing Action Group and the Greater Glasgow Student Tenants Union [GGSTU] to support students in taking action for fairer treatment from their accommodation providers.
“This update to Scottish Government guidance is long overdue but welcome news for students seeking to leave their tenancies,” Rapson explained: “I’m glad to see that they have taken onboard the concerns I and others have raised via NUS Scotland.
“Regardless, the fact that students were left in this situation in the first place, by providers more interested in their own profits than the wellbeing of their tenants, will leave long lasting questions for students. It’s time to shift the balance of power by ensuring that students join tenants’ unions like the Greater Glasgow Student Tenants Union (GGSTU) and explore alternative forms of accommodation such as student housing co-operatives.”
Students needing assistance with a termination letter can find more information from Strath Union here.
Any students wishing to join or find more information about the GGSTU are encouraged to visit the official Facebook page or contact VP Welfare Benn Rapson directly on Facebook or via email@example.com.