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, with current government guidance prohibiting students to return to their term time accommodation if they left to stay at their home address during winter break; ultimately resulting in many students paying for accommodation they now cannot stay in.
Speaking with the Strathclyde Telegraph, a Unite Students spokesperson said: “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.”
The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 was introduced to protect students in these situations in May last year. It grants students living in purpose-built student accommodation similar rights to those in private residential tenancies and gives them permission to hand in 28 days notice to bring tenancy agreements to an end earlier.
However, 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 lease.
Several Strathclyde students previously reported that accommodation provider Unite Students asked them to provide additional evidence to terminate their lease agreements for reasons related to Covid-19. Such evidence included having to prove that they were experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic, or that their course was moved online for the rest of the semester – the latter of which the University of Strathclyde never committed to announcing for the second term of the year.
Others managed to end their contracts early but stated they never received a refund for rent they had pre-paid for upcoming months now outside their tenancy agreement.
“I am glad they allowed us out of our contracts early, but I feel as though they already charge students enough rent as it is without unfairly overcharging during a pandemic when times are uncertain,” said Ali Gibson, a Business Administration student at Strathclyde.
Gibson previously lived in Unite Students’ Merchant City House accommodation. While she was able to cancel her contract with Unite Students back in March last year, she is still waiting on a refund of £200 she says she overpaid and explains she knows others that are currently waiting for refunds of up to £800.
In a letter sent to students, Richard Lochhead – Minister for Further Education, Higher Education, and Science – explained current Coronavirus measures and confirmed that universities, college campuses, and student accommodation will be open only for students “who have remained over the winter break” and other “exceptional” returners.
Lochhead also clarified the Scottish Government’s position on the Act.
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.”
After reports of students having to provide evidence to end their lease first emerged, Benn Rapson – Vice President Welfare at Strathclyde Student’s Association – sent an open letter to Unite Students, urging the accommodation provider to “reconsider their position” and to “allow students to leave their accommodation without prejudice.”
“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 on board 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.
Rapson has since penning the letter 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.
He added: “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.”
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.
“Any student who is struggling financially should talk to us and contact their university student finance team for further support.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.