"I thought it might be useful if I wrote to all of Unipol’s tenants trying to bring whatever transparency I can to how we are approaching the difficulties you will be experiencing with the shift to on-line teaching for many announced by the Minister for Higher Education a few days ago, followed by the Prime Minister’s announcement on the evening of 4th January 2021
For most of you, living in Leeds, Bradford and Nottingham that were already under restrictions, the “lockdown” measures will have had only a limited additional effect and the main thrust of the Prime Minister’s announcement related to the closure of schools. Guidance on higher education is being reviewed in the week commencing 18th January 2021, and further clarity on how this term might progress will not be available until after then.
You will have received communication from your educational institution setting out their plans for teaching arrangements and return to the University campus. All of the educational institutions with whom we deal are not telling students that they cannot return to their accommodation.
For private sector housing suppliers, and Unipol as a charity falls into this category, Government advice has nothing to say and is geared entirely at educational institutions. It is therefore for educational institutions to undertake messaging to their students to meet Government advice and to arrange messaging about testing on return.
The Office for Students has brought out a number of FAQs which provides advice in this area https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/for-students/student-guide-to-coronavirus/returning-to-university-in-2021
“I don’t have adequate study space at home/ it’s better for my mental health for me to go back to university, can I go back?
The advice is that you do not to return to your term-time accommodation until your university tells you to go back. Until then, it is strongly encouraged that you remain where you are and access your course online wherever possible. However, you may return to university earlier if you do not have access to appropriate alternative accommodation, facilities or studying space, or you decide it is better for your mental health and wellbeing. In these circumstances, your university should make plans to welcome you back to campus from your original start date. Face-to-face teaching will not restart straight away, unless you are on a practical course. Your university has been asked to consider what resources, study spaces, campus catering and appropriate pastoral and study support can be made available to you in COVID-secure environments.”
Unipol is not an educational institution and we tend to house students who value their independent living arrangements where they study. Unlike an educational institution we also house a much wider range of students than them, including undergraduate returning students, postgraduates, international students and those with families.
It is still early in the year to predict how students will actually react to returning to their accommodation. Unipol’s purpose built buildings (at Mill Street, the Student Hideout and Sandhills) (as of 4th January 2021) are currently running at around 25% occupancy - not a lot different from a normal opening week of January. In our smaller off-street houses, occupancy is more difficult to determine, but our initial estimate is that occupancy is running at 50% - again, about the level we would expect at this time of year. We will contact you all early next week (after 11th January) when we can make a more accurate assessment of occupancy. Indications are that most students either are already moving back to their accommodation or will return to live in our accommodation, regardless of their teaching arrangements.
There are a number of calls for rent refunds within the educational sector. Just to remind you, Unipol is a housing charity, so our “business model” is that you are paying us for the cost of where you are living - there is no “profit” and therefore, if we start giving rent back, all this does is affect rent levels for future students. It also has the undesirable effect that those students living in our accommodation pay more so that others can leave.
It is important that Unipol holds to its existing values and is seen to be behaving fairly at this time and the following matters need to be taken into account:
a) Unipol did reduce rents by 50% for those living in our smaller houses who paid rent over July and August earlier this year. As was explained at the time, this was because in June 2020 it was not clear what the Government position was on re-opening universities and, had they not opened, then the concessionary rent level reflected an unintended risk taken by those tenants who signed up well before the initial Coronavirus pandemic existed. This is not the case this time.
b) Unipol have also recently made a number of rent refunds at Sandhills related to building works because the cost could be passed on to the developer rather than other students.
c) This is not the same as the last academic year when universities actually closed all of their facilities and students were told to go home. Now, universities are required to keep facilities open for their students who choose to return.
d) The Government advice means that any student can return at any time to their accommodation which must remain open to them. It would be difficult to look at reducing rent to tenants who were not there for a few days - it may also be interpreted that Unipol was paying students to stay away from their accommodation, not something a student housing charity would want to do.
e) All of Unipol’s tenants were written to over the summer period and given the option of making out a case for ending their contractual obligations. All students knew of the blended learning package and most of the social distancing restrictions before they confirmed their University place. The recent Government advice is no one’s fault and simply reflects the risk that all parties have to share during the pandemic.
f) Unipol has allowed a much greater number of students to leave contracts and has taken a constructive line on special cases. It has also increased its expenditure on cleaning, security and tenant support.
g) Unipol’s Tenancy Release Group exists to consider other exceptional requests to leave and end tenancies and that will continue to function throughout the year and details can be found at https://www.unipolhousing.org.uk/unipol-tenants/moving-out/wishing-to-leave-the-tenancy-early/special-circumstances/
As is so often the case with this pandemic, the future remains uncertain and I will write to you again once we have had an opportunity to absorb the forthcoming Government advice on higher education due on 18th January 2021. By that stage, we will have been able to make a more accurate assessment of how many students have returned to live in their housing. I plan to write to you again on Friday 22nd January 2021. In the meantime, contracted rental payments should continue as normal and our portfolio and buildings are fully up and running should you wish to return (as many already have).
One thing I can offer now is that Unipol is willing to take an increasingly flexible position if you believe you have a special case and wish to leave your student accommodation and study from home for the remainder of the year. We have already released over 80 tenants who have chosen to be what is known as “commuter students” and although that meant a significant reduction in planned rental income, we are anxious to respond to any special cases that fall within this area. To be considered please send details of your individual position to Ms Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed, Assistant Chief Executive - Standards V.Tolmie-Loverseed@unipol.org.uk and she will endeavour to get you a response within 5 working days. Applications need to be submitted by Thursday 21st January 2021 to be considered.
One further matter we are actively considering is whether to offer tenants living in our larger buildings a voluntary extension of their existing contract with several additional rent-free weeks at the end of the year. As the pandemic hopefully subsides as the vaccine is rolled out, it would potentially offer a post-term social environment as you might have planned for the opening of the year.
As I say, I will write to you again on 22nd January 2021 and I hope you can tell we are trying to do what is right and fair to all of our tenants in very difficult circumstances.
Martin Blakey, Chief Executive, Unipol Student Homes - 5th January 2021