Many students at Ulster University have been unable to cancel their accommodation contracts despite the NI Executive urging students not to return to their rooms until face-to-face teaching resumes.
Some are paying thousands for empty rooms in which they have not stayed for months, if at all. As a result, students are now facing financial difficulties and deteriorating mental health.
Ulster University, unlike other universities, has offered no universal rent holiday, rent reduction or contract release to its accommodation residents.
The University say they told students in August and November 2020 which courses required on-campus teaching and that all other courses could expect to move entirely online.
They also say they are reviewing requests to terminate accommodation contracts on a case-by-case basis.
These developments come as Ulster University is revealed to have splashed nearly £40,000 last year on its Vice-Chancellor’s Residence.
UU residents secured their accommodation last year with many hoping that they would receive some form of in-person teaching. But after the vast majority of teaching was moved online, some students decided they wanted to stay at home.
John, 19, is paying £4,000 for a room at Magee Campus in which he has not slept a single night.
“I booked accommodation in August following the emails from university about mixed learning. I decided I wanted to leave my accommodation in September after I received my timetable which stated all lessons will be carried out online.
It’s ridiculous spending this much money on something which I have never used.”
Others began to explore cancelling their accommodation contracts more recently.
Sarah decided in December she wanted to end her accommodation.
“It feels like a prison. You literally cannot move or make any noise and people complain and we get shouted at. It’s miserable to live there.
It is affecting me mentally and I feel trapped. I am out of work because of the restrictions as well. I went weeks living on just £15 and lived on bread and tap water basically.
Students typically pay their way through university by holding down part-time retail or hospitality work alongside their studies. Many of them have lost their jobs during the pandemic
“It’s really affecting people mentally being stuck having to pay for a place you don’t live in, especially when you come from a background of little to no money.
I have no motivation to get up out of bed. I don’t want to socialise anymore. Knowing I’m out so much money makes me depressed.”
Sarah has attempted to exit her accommodation contract but was refused.
According to Ulster University’s website, in order to end their contract, UU residents must find another student to take their place, drop out of the University entirely or show evidence of extreme circumstances. Many students have found they do not meet these criteria.
Alex, who booked her accommodation in May 2020, believes that these conditions are “appalling”.
“Everyone is already tackling so many of their own personal struggles, why make it so difficult for students to leave the accommodation? I find it upsetting.”
More than a quarter of young people in Northern Ireland say they feel unable to cope with life since the pandemic began.
Students who do meet the criteria to leave their accommodation still have to pay a cancellation fee of four weeks rent.
Shannon, who recently managed to cancel her accommodation in Cranagh Village Coleraine, will pay an “extreme” £460 cancellation fee on top of £920 already spent on unused accommodation.
“I don’t think it is fair as people are struggling to make ends meet but we can only get out based on those requirements rather than on financial inability.”
Rebecca, 19, had to produce a doctors note verifying she lived with a vulnerable relative in order to prove that she qualified for the extreme circumstances criteria.
“Whether you’re living with a vulnerable relative at home or not, there should be an option to leave the accommodation without having to produce evidence and having to pay for a doctor’s letter.”
Rebecca spent £805 on empty accommodation before she left her contract.
Ulster University accommodation costs vary according to location and specifications, but average out at £130 per week or £4,810 per 37 week term. This money also funds accommodation facilities such as social spaces which are now legally inaccessible.
“Financially it’s been quite a struggle”, says Alex, who is paying £115 upfront per week on her room in Cranagh Village.
“My mother is the only income earner in the family. She works as a nurse, working long days, long nights, working overtime just for her hard-earned income to be used on empty accommodation.”
Ulster University Students’ Union say they are representing students through their Advice Bureau and that students with concerns should contact them directly.
Alice has not been in her accommodation since the end of last term
Other universities have offered their students rent holidays, rent reductions or contract releases in light of teaching being delivered online and the repeated pandemic lockdowns.
Queen’s University recently extended its rent holiday, which began in October 2020, to the 5th of March 2021. Manchester University agreed a 30% rent reduction in November after concerted pressure from student protestors.
Alice, 18, says, “When friends at other universities are getting rent holidays and are able to leave their contract quite easily I’m extremely frustrated. We have been treated extremely unfairly and it needs to change.”
Alice will have blown £1,000 on unused accommodation before she returns to her room.
In Wales and England, tens of millions has set aside for students facing financial difficulties. In Scotland, students can now end a tenancy of purpose-built student accommodation with 28 days’ notice.
Diane Dodds MLA, the Minister for the Economy (the department responsible for universities), yesterday announced additional money to help students facing financial difficulties, with further announcements due later this week.
According to a Department for the Economy statement, the Minister has asked universities “to take action” against unused accommodation by offering rent holidays or contract releases in cases of financial hardship.
Ellen Fearon, President of NUS-USI, welcomed this additional funding but cautioned that, “removing the barriers to students accessing hardship funds is now crucial.”
Thomas Copeland is the Co-Founder and Editor of Challenges NI and the Head of News at Queen's Radio