University of Manchester student Cerys Jones lives in a house of 10 students and was supposed to be moving out tomorrow. Instead, as another academic year draws to a close, she and her housemates are stuck there self-isolating for the next week. “Our tenancy is up and we can’t get in contact with our landlady properly to discuss the situation – we've rung and text her nine times in the last two days, and we’ve heard nothing.” The housemates, who are all required to isolate, are fearing the worst. “Our next-door neighbours have COVID and their landlord was trying to kick them out even though they have to self-isolate. They’re having to pay an extra month's rent for being there an extra week.”
Stories like this – of private landlords cashing in on the COVID crisis – are not uncommon right now. Across the country, many students are ending the academic year as it began: home, alone and isolated. Some are unable to vacate their properties or move to the next one if students are isolating there. Others are missing practical lessons and have no chance to catch up before exams. Halls were hit badly at the start of the year but it's privately rented houses that are suffering the most this time and people are really quite unwell. “Suddenly, so many people are isolating again. Everyone’s getting done by the [Track and Trace] app and told to stay home,” says first-year drama student Rebecca Brown (not her real name). "It’s left people feeling disheartened."
Once again, fears are growing of a mental health crisis among students. The significant rise in COVID cases over the last few weeks has only made things worse. According to a new report from Accenture, 80% of students feel the pandemic has contributed to their poor mental health. Experts say they can understand why students are frustrated. “It’s been a tough end to a tough year. Students have been reluctant about keeping to the rules, but they have,” says Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. Self-isolating is impacting on part-time jobs and most students are not entitled to the government’s financial support of £500. For the majority, the maintenance loan is not enough in normal circumstances, let alone now they are being charged additional money by landlords and letting agencies.
Rent has been a huge source of stress for students throughout the pandemic. The National Union of Students (NUS) has found that half of student renters spend more than 75% of their monthly income on housing costs. Last November they surveyed students and found that over two thirds of student renters (69%) were concerned about their ability to pay their rent because of the coronavirus crisis.
Little support has been made available. The UK government website says that landlords should avoid moving tenants who are showing symptoms of COVID or self-isolating but this is merely guidance, not law. Hillman thinks private providers need to be more understanding and students should apply to their university hardship fund for help. “I urge landlords to look at more flexibility and offer more support," he says. “These are not problems of students' own making.”
Although many universities are offering support such as emails and calls, which have been reassuring, many feel that chaotic government messaging has made matters worse. The original prospect of a 21st June lockdown easing in England led many students to believe the worst was over. “Things were supposedly opening up. After Easter, security went from being everywhere to literally none, so people went a bit nuts," says Rebecca, who thinks the relaxing of the rules was taken as a free-for-all. “There was so much socialising and partying that people felt invincible. Everyone thought COVID hardly existed anymore so went to loads of parties.”
The number of students now isolating has also led some students to question the Track and Trace system. In Manchester, Rebecca tells me that there are stories of two girls going to a bar and sitting outside in the corner of a beer garden, then being told they have to isolate for a week. She also says there have been “loads of rumours of false negatives”. “There’s a lot of speculation around and everyone is getting pinged by the app. Some students are faking track and tracing and just taking a photo instead of scanning in on the app. No one wants to get caught by it,” she adds.
It’s really shit, the year began with this and then there’s been this whole big build-up of things supposedly reopening, but we’re back to where we all began.
To make matters worse, students say the latest variant (Delta) is making them much more unwell. First-year Nottingham Trent student Emily Church says it’s her flat's second time going through this. “We isolated right at the beginning of the academic year because one of my flatmates got COVID and the same flatmate got it again. She’s properly ill.” The flat is in the middle of a 10-day isolation and everyone is having to be careful. “We wear masks in the kitchen and go in at different times from our flatmate and are really over the top sanitising everything. It’s pretty tedious, to be honest.”
Leigh Spanner, interim head of engagement at Student Minds, says that even before the pandemic, students were spending increasing amounts of time in residential accommodation, which can have a major bearing on mental health and wellbeing. With no in-person lectures, limited access to libraries and campus activity, the only time students came into contact with each other was through socialising. As a result, talk of "COVID anxiety" dominates and, for many, the year has ended on a sour note. "The only social contact they got was from seeing friends and now everyone has been struck down again,” says Rebecca. "People want to be celebrating the end of the year. It's really frustrating."
Emily agrees. She handed in her big end-of-year submission on Tuesday morning and was "really looking forward" to being able to relax and see friends.
Ultimately, students feel they are being failed – emotionally and economically – as much at the end of the year as they were at the start. “It’s really shit, the year began with this and then there’s been this whole big build-up of things supposedly reopening, but we’re back to where we all began,” concludes Rebecca.