How coronavirus impacts students and what to do in 2021
The pandemic has affected students at every level. Will lectures be taught in-person at university? Will coronavirus affect Student Finance? Will you still have to pay rent at uni?
It seems like only yesterday that the thought of self-isolating was a dystopian fantasy.
But it looks like coronavirus is here to stay for a while longer. The UK's starting to open up a bit now, but there's still a lot of confusion around how coronavirus affects university life right now.
This guide will help you navigate renting, Student Finance and offer some tips if you're struggling financially to cover basic needs. Rest assured – we'll get through this together and come out stronger on the other side. 🙏
What's in this guide?
- Student accommodation advice
- Can you get a refund from your university due to coronavirus?
- What happens to your Student Loan?
- Coronavirus hardship funds for students
- How the pandemic impacts part-time jobs
- How to avoid spreading coronavirus at university
- Tips for making extra money
- Tips for saving money
Coronavirus and student accommodation
Whether you're living in university halls or private accommodation, you'll no doubt be wondering how coronavirus impacts your living situation at uni.
Our recent National Student Accommodation Survey (NSAS) revealed that students have on average received £75pw in rent discount. However, a significantly higher proportion of students received discounts in uni accommodation (63%) compared to those with private landlords (6%).
Worryingly, based on the results from our survey, we estimate that nearly £1 billion has been wasted by students on unusable accommodation.
Here's the key info you need to know, including your rights as a student tenant if you want (or need) to leave your uni accommodation early.
Students in university halls of residence
There's recently been a huge amount of media coverage about students in university accommodation.
It's no secret that students across the country have found themselves in pretty tough circumstances. Many have needed to start self-isolating soon after moving into halls, while others haven't been able to get back after Christmas.
So, if you're currently based in university halls, you won't be alone in wondering what your rights are as a student tenant, and what your options are moving forwards.
Can you get rent refunds for university accommodation?
If you're living in a hall of residence, whether or not you can receive a rent rebate or a break from paying rent will be down to your university.
As we mentioned earlier, in the recent NSAS, just over three in five students in university halls said they have been offered a rent discount.
If your university doesn't offer you a refund but you think you should be entitled to one, it could be worth reaching out to a representative of your halls of residence.
You can present a case to them on why you think you deserve compensation and, if they're not able to help, they may be able to direct you to someone who can.
Make sure you know your rights as a tenant. And, to strengthen your case, collect as much evidence as you can to show why you think you haven't received your money's worth.
Student rent strikes
In 2020/21, students across the country have been making it clear that they're unwilling to keep paying full rent for their room for all of this academic year, without getting a refund.
In protest, there have been widespread rent strikes – with many students receiving refunds following their actions.
We've heard of 20+ rent strikes that have either happened or have been in the process of being planned, at institutions including the University of Manchester, University of Cambridge and University of Bristol.
As an example of a rent strike that's led to refunds, students in halls at the University of Manchester were given a 30% cut in rent from September to 31st January 2021.
Rent Strike are involved in a lot of the protests, so if you're looking to find out more about any planned rent strikes at your uni, it's worth getting in touch with them.
What happens if you move out of university halls early?
Although universities aren't obliged to waive or refund your rent if you need to leave halls early, some may decide to.
Compared to those living in private accommodation, you may have more chance of getting a reduction in rent or an early termination of the contract – but there's no guarantee.
In September 2020, we heard from Citizens Advice. A senior housing expert from the charity, Amy Hughes, said:
It's always worth getting in touch with your landlord and trying to negotiate. But realistically, if there is no obligation for them to release you from the contract, they may well be unwilling to do so.
Where the landlord is the university, they may be more sympathetic to a short-term reduction in rent, or ending a contract early, if there is no longer any reason for you to remain in halls.
However, it is early in the academic year, and it may be difficult to find alternative halls of residence accommodation if a student gives up their place, but later wishes to return.
Can students return to university accommodation?
Across the UK, coronavirus restrictions are in place to limit the spread of the virus. And, for many students, the government's rules will impact when they'll be returning to their uni halls.
On the whole, most degrees will be delivered online during lockdown in the spring term. So, if all of your classes are being delivered virtually, the stay-at-home orders from the government mean you should stay at home if you're able to.
The government is advising unis to only ask students back if the courses can't reasonably continue online. However, as the roadmap out of lockdown allows for more relaxation, some facilities (e.g. gyms and leisure facilities) may be able to open in the coming weeks and months.
If you do need to return to uni for your course, your university will let you know, and you would need to test for coronavirus before travelling back.
And, if you're at all unsure of your uni's plans, get in touch with your tutor for more information.
Students in private accommodation
Although it can be tricky for students in university halls, it can be harder still to get refunds or terminate contracts early when you're renting privately.
Privately-rented accommodation can include student houses, flats and private halls (i.e. ones owned by a company rather than your university).
Can you get rent refunds for private accommodation?
In January 2021, a couple of private student accommodation providers (Unite and Student Roost) announced that they would be offering rent refunds to students who weren't able to return for the Spring term due to restrictions.
However, please note: you needed to apply to receive the rent reductions by a certain date, and the deadlines have now passed.
If you're not a resident in Unite or Student Roost accommodation, it's important to bear in mind that some landlords may be generous and offer you a rent reduction, but this is very unlikely. You are contractually bound to continue covering the rent of your accommodation for however long is stated in your tenancy agreement.
But, you may be able to terminate the contract early if you have a break clause in the agreement.
For example, if you signed up for a one-year let but you have a six-month break clause, this means that you should be able to end the contract after six months – you'll just need to pay rent for the notice period, then you should be fine to move out and stop paying rent.
Can you get a refund on your tuition fees?
One question that a lot of students will be wondering is: could you get compensation from your university due to the coronavirus pandemic?
It is a possibility that you could be entitled to compensation, but we would stress that it's by no means guaranteed.
For starters, it was unfortunately confirmed by the government in May 2020 that, even if universities offer teaching online, students would still be expected to pay full tuition fees – on the condition that the online teaching is up to scratch.
And, in October 2020, the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, built on this to say:
It would be unacceptable for a student to be paying those tuition fees and not getting that quality or not getting that support.
If you think that the support or quality of education at your uni hasn't been up to scratch, this is one line of argument you could make if you do wish to make a claim for compensation.
Overall, it's important to think carefully about what you were offered when you applied for your course, and whether you think you have received an adequate uni experience.
How to claim compensation from your university due to coronavirus
Are you confident you haven't received your money's worth at uni? The first steps are to outline exactly why you feel this way, collecting as much evidence as you can to build up a case. Then, approach your university with your complaint.
If you are unhappy with the university's response, you would then have the option to take your complaint further to an ombudsman if you wish.
These are the ombudsman services that you can approach with your complaint, depending on whereabouts in the UK you're based:
- Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) – For students in England and Wales
- Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) – For students in Scotland
- Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) – For students in Northern Ireland.
The ombudsman will consider your complaint, and if they think it's justified, they'll make a suggestion to your university on how they should respond. For example, if they think you should be compensated, they will say this to your uni and give a suggested amount.
For more info and advice about claiming compensation from your university, check out our in-depth guide which explains the process, step-by-step.
How coronavirus affects Student Finance
Good news: in terms of your Student Loan, it's basically business as usual.
You should be receiving the scheduled payments of your Maintenance Loan, regardless of whether or not your university has made alternative arrangements for teaching.
Will students still receive Student Finance during the pandemic?
Yes! Student Finance is absolutely still available to students during the 2020/21 academic year. If your Maintenance Loan is late or you've been having a problem with your Student Finance application, we'd advise you to contact your Student Finance provider.
You could receive a higher Student Loan if your household income has gone down in 2020/21
If your household has experienced a loss of income due to COVID-19, you may be entitled to receive a higher Maintenance Loan. This is because, if your household income drops by a certain amount (more on this shortly), you could complete a Current Year Income Assessment.
Usually, when you apply for Student Finance, wherever in the UK you are, you're asked to provide information about your or your parents' income from the previous tax year to work out how much Maintenance Loan you're entitled to.
Because of this, the amount of Maintenance Loan you'd get would be calculated based on how much your parents earned (or how much you earned if you're financially independent) two years ago.
If your household income is lower now than it was then, you may be able to provide details of your income for this current tax year instead of last year's. You must then keep your income details up to date during the year and confirm your actual income at the end of the tax year.
Here's a rundown of the minimum income drops required to qualify for a Current Year Income Assessment in each part of the UK:
- Student Finance England – 15% drop in household income
- Student Finance Northern Ireland – 5% drop in household income
- SAAS (Scottish Student Finance) – A drop in household income to a lower income bracket (the income brackets are outlined here)
- Student Finance Wales – 15% drop in household income.
What happens to Student Finance when you drop out of uni?
If you're thinking about dropping out of university due to the challenges posed by coronavirus, it's important not to rush into this decision. Contact your tutor and student support services at uni to discuss your options, and see if there's anything more they can do to support you.
Then, if you still decide that it would be the right decision for you to withdraw from your degree, make sure you're familiar with how this impacts your Student Loan. In particular, it's important to know that there will be money that you'll need to repay if you've had a Tuition Fee Loan and/or a Maintenance Loan.
Firstly, you may need to pay back a portion of your Maintenance Loan immediately if you drop out midway through a term. For example, if you drop out exactly halfway through the semester, you might be asked to start paying back half of your most recent loan instalment straight away.
If this is the case, you should be able to chat with SLC to discuss an affordable repayment plan.
For the rest of your Student Loan, you won't need to start paying it back until the April after you withdraw from your course, and only then when you're earning above the repayment threshold.
We can talk you through all of this in our guide on what happens to your Student Loan if you drop out of university.
Coronavirus hardship fund
Universities and higher education providers in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also been allocated funding to put towards student hardship funds and mental health support. These grants should be available directly through your university.
Student support services will assess the hardship payments at their discretion and may give priority to some students based on their needs.
If you're struggling financially, it's definitely worth approaching your university to find out whether you might be eligible for a hardship fund.
And if coronavirus has taken its toll on your mental health, we'd also encourage you to approach your university's support services – they may have special measures in place to help you manage the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Do you have to repay your Student Loan if you can't work because of coronavirus?
You only start repaying your Student Loan from April in the year after you leave uni, and even then it's only when earning over the repayment threshold.
So, if you're a graduate and you've lost some or all of your income due to coronavirus, please try not to worry about your Student Loan repayments – if your income drops below the threshold, the payments will stop until you begin earning more again.
For more information on Student Finance and COVID-19, check out the Student Loans Company (SLC) website.
How coronavirus affects students with part-time jobs
Worried about how the pandemic could impact your part-time job? You may be able to receive support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).
Read on for the key info about the scheme. Or, if you're finding it difficult to find a part-time job, we go through some additional ways that you can access and make money below.
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
The government has rolled out supportive measures known as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which helps to cover the wages of employees in companies that have been hit financially by the pandemic.
The system basically allows employers to put people's jobs on hold, or on 'furlough', and provide them with some income in the meantime.
Grants have been given to businesses so that furloughed employees can receive 80% of their wages, up to £2,500.
Businesses can bring furloughed employees back part-time, and this is known as 'flexible furlough'. For flexible furlough, it's up to companies to decide the hours and shift patterns their employees will work.
The companies will then be responsible for paying employees for the hours they work, and the government will continue to cover 80% of salaries for the hours not worked.
If you're flexibly furloughed, the cap of £2,500 will be proportional to the hours that you don't work. So if, for example, you're only working 40% of your usual hours, you could receive up to 60% of the £2,500 cap (£1,500).
The scheme has been extended until the end of September 2021. This means that if you've been put on furlough, your employer should be eligible to claim until then.
From July 2021, the proportion of wages that the government will contribute will decrease, but your employer would need to pay the shortfall so that you continue to receive 80% of your wages, up to £2,500. You can find out more about this here.
Who is eligible for furlough?
To be eligible for the extended CJRS scheme, you'd need to have been employed and on your employer's PAYE payroll on 30th October 2020.
You can be on any type of employment contract to be eligible for the scheme. This includes if you're the employee of individuals who aren't companies – this may be the case if you're a nanny, for example.
So if you have a part-time job that's impacted by the lockdown, your employer could be given a grant to cover the majority of your wages while you're on furlough.
If you rely on more seasonal part-time work – like, for instance, you only work during the Christmas period or over the summer – you might not be able to claim furlough. Chat with your employer for more details if you're unsure.
Furlough and taking annual leave in lockdown
It's worth noting that your employer can force you to take annual leave while you're on furlough. You should still receive your usual pay and you should also receive enough notice to do so. For instance, if you're being asked to take three days holiday, your employer should tell you this six days in advance.
The government has said that while you're on annual leave, you'll need to be paid your full holiday pay. So if you're only receiving 80% of your salary at the moment your employer will need to make up the 20% so that you're receiving your full holiday pay while you're on annual leave.
You can find more info here.
How to avoid spreading coronavirus at university
It's so, so important to follow the government's guidelines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus at uni.
Remember that, even though you may have no problems at all recovering from the virus, for others it can be really serious.
This is why it's essential to self-isolate if you or someone you've been in close contact with has a new and persistent cough, a high temperature and/or a loss or change to your sense of taste or smell.
On top of this, following measures like social distancing, wearing masks and regularly washing your hands can make a massive difference.
To avoid catching and spreading coronavirus, follow the 'Hands, Face, Space' guidelines:
Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, drying them thoroughly afterwards.
And, when you're out and about, use hand sanitiser (particularly when entering a building, and after you've had contact with surfaces).
Wear a face covering whenever required, such as on public transport and in shops. It's important to wear them whenever you're in an enclosed public space where social distancing is difficult, and you're around people you don't usually meet.
Keep in mind, though, that some people are exempt from wearing face coverings, such as those with breathing difficulties.
By social distancing and keeping a space between yourself and others, you can reduce the risk of getting or spreading coronavirus.
It makes a big difference as the virus is much more likely to pass between people when they're close together. Be sure to follow any local, regional or national guidelines and follow social distancing measures.
Social distancing includes:
- Avoiding physical contact and being face-to-face with people outside of your household
- Trying not to see too many different people over a short period of time
- Keeping a distance (preferably of two metres) from people you don't live with.
What is the science behind 'Hands, Face, Space'?
This video outlines the science behind why it's important to wash hands with soap and water regularly, wear a face covering, and leave a space between yourself and others:
Tips for making and saving money during the pandemic
How to make money during the pandemic
While 74% of students relied on part-time jobs last year to make money, a lot of students will find it more challenging than usual to find jobs to fund their studies, due to the pandemic.
We always recommend trying to get a Maintenance Loan first but, if your loan doesn’t stretch far enough, there are many more ways to find extra money at uni:
- Apply for scholarships, grants and bursaries
- Ask for support from parents, if they’re happy and able to give you money at uni (find out how much the government expects your parents to contribute each year)
- Sell unwanted belongings online
- Make sure you’ve access the free money available to you
- Do paid online surveys
- Dip into an interest- and fee-free overdraft
- Start freelancing
- Set up your own business
- Make money from blogging
- Try a quick, easy way to make money.
How to save money during the pandemic
To make your money stretch further during the coronavirus pandemic, try these top tips:
- Follow a meal plan
- See if you’re eligible for cheaper healthcare and dentistry
- Use handy money-saving tools
- Try these tips for saving money on textbooks
- Find out if you could get free sanitary products
- Avoid gym fees by doing free workouts
- Try ways to get food and drink for free
- Use supermarket cashback apps
- Keep an eye on our daily deals
- Go through our ultimate guide to saving cash and find the money-management techniques that work for you.
Our student money cheat sheet distils loads of advice from our site onto just two pages.