Compensation must be available for students unable to live in private accommodation they still are paying for, a union says.
The National Union of Students (NUS) said it was “simply unacceptable” that there is no financial support for students and landlords.
Universities, including Bristol, Bath and Bath Spa, plan to give students who cannot use accommodation rent rebates.
The Department for Education said there is funding for those “most in need”.
A students’ representative at Bath Spa University said many students “feel completely cut off” from their academic community.
That is despite them spending thousands of pounds on tuition and accommodation this year.
And an NUS spokesperson said: “All student renters must now be offered rent refunds and the option of leaving their tenancy early.
“If universities and landlords need financial support to make this happen then government must step in.”
‘Such an injustice’
Ciara Martin, an education studies student who is in her third year at Bath Spa, said she has spent about £1,500 in the last three months on a house in Weston-super-Mare.
She has spent all of that time living at home in Surrey.
Ms Martin decided to go home for a reading week in November – but was then unable to travel back because of the second lockdown.
“I haven’t lived there since November. I’m paying all these bills and I’m not even using it. It’s ridiculous, it’s just such an injustice,” she said.
“It’s great the universities are helping those in university accommodation but something really needs to be done [about private rentals]. There’s the extra worry of the money we’re spending”, she said.
“It just feels totally helpless.
“Landlords haven’t said anything about paying less or anything like that so we’re definitely stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
‘If there was mould, we didn’t see it’
Poppy Colbourne is currently spending about £550 a month on rent and bills for a house in Bath that she cannot visit or live in.
She is completing her Master’s degree in neuropsychology while living at her family home in Northampton.
Ms Colbourne and her two housemates signed up to the property without seeing it in person because of coronavirus restrictions.
A virtual tour of the house was the closest they could get to a typical viewing.
“We just had to take the landlord’s word for it. If there was mould, we didn’t see it”, she said.
She has not been in a classroom since March but has graduated and started studying for her current degree.
“I feel like my life’s on pause but I’m still expected to do the same and it’s not possible. I’m overwhelmed, it’s making me ill about how stressed I am. I just need a sense of normality.”
‘I didn’t want to waste my money’
For Jess Foster, a second year human nutrition student from Somerset, it seemed like “everything was slowly getting back to normal” when she returned to Bath in September.
She had signed up for a year in private accommodation with housemates for the first time.
But just a couple of months later, she was the only person living there.
“All my housemates, because of uncertainty, and because they live so much further away from Bath, decided to go home”, she said.
“Because of how much I’m paying in bills I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to waste my money. So during the second lockdown I lived on my own in my house.”
She went back home in December and remains there, still unsure whether she will be able to undertake practical units of her course in the next few months.
What do the landlords say?
Many landlords are reliant on rental income “for their livelihood and pension and cannot afford just not to be paid”, the chief executive of the National Residents Landlords Association said.
Ben Beadle said the association has “encouraged landlords to show whatever flexibility they are able to provide”.
But he added: “If the desire is for students not to be required to pay rent where they are temporarily not occupying their housing but want this to be kept available to them when they return, then the government needs to provide a package of compensation.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said it recognised it had been a “very difficult time for students” and that it “encourages universities and accommodation providers to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart”.
They said it has announced funding of up to £20m to help students “most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances”.
Universities have been given £256m which they “can use to help students”, they said.