University tuition fees and accommodation costs in a Covid-19 world

Coronavirus-and-uni-fees

As students return to university for the start of the new academic year, many will see changes to their courses.

Some universities have switched to online lectures and some campuses are imposing strict social distancing measures, severly restricting any face to face interaction.

Also, in preparation for their return, thousands of students have secured and paid for rented accommodation which they now may not need.  Do students have to pay the full cost of tuition and can they break their tenancy agreements and ask for a refund of the costs?

Phoebe Callender, Associate Solicitor at DAS Law, has the answers…

I am about to start/return to university and have signed a tenancy and paid for my accommodation.  However, my lectures have been moved online.  Do I still need to pay rent for my student accommodation? Can I get evicted if I can’t afford to pay my rent?

Student accommodation with a private landlord will be considered as an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST) under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985.

An AST usually ties you in for certain period of time. If you now want to change that as you will not be moving to your University location you should first discuss with your landlord.

You can discuss with your landlord ending the tenancy early and both agreeing to mutually surrender the tenancy. This will mean your landlord accepts that you will not be moving in but can hold you liable for rent until they find a new tenant to replace you.

If your landlord does not agree to end the tenancy early you will have to pay rent until the end of the fixed term agreed and you can be evicted for non-payment if the rent arrears mount up. There are specific methods for evictions that landlords must take and you can obtain advice from Citizen Advice and Shelter.

Am I legally allowed to break my tenancy without penalty or cost?

A tenancy is a contract. If you break any of the terms without the Landlord’s agreement then they are able to pursue you for a breach of contract. It may be that they will hold you liable for rent if unpaid and/or property damage etc.

Can a landlord take me to court for breaking the terms of my tenancy?

If you break a term of the tenancy without your landlord’s agreement then they are able to pursue you for a breach of contract through a court process.  Whether a landlord will be successful at court will depend on the circumstances so it is always best to seek legal advice prior to breaching the terms of your tenancy.

If I lose the case will my credit rating be affected?

If the matter goes to court and you lose the case, a judgement will be made against you. You will have one month to pay this in full without any effect on your credit file. If it isn’t paid within a month a County Court Judgement (CCJ) will be registered on your credit file.

Can I get a refund on the rent if I decide to leave the student accommodation?

University halls of residence accommodation agreements will usually tie-in a student for a certain period of time, usually, one academic year. Leaving early may be considered as a breach of contract therefore entitling the university to take court action against you. Always check your agreement to see if there are any clauses allowing you to leave early.

All my lectures are now online, can I ask the University for a reduction in student fees?

If the university is providing the services of lectures, tutorials and support then it will be difficult to ask for a reduction in the fees as contractually they would be fulfilling their obligations.

The Government has produced a guidance document for universities and higher education providers with the advice that lectures and tutorials should as much as possible be face to face.

If the quality of the online services the University is offering is not adequate or satisfactory then there could be an argument for a reduction in fees as they would not be fulfilling their contractual obligations fully. The Office For Students (OFS), the regulator in England for Higher Education, has provided guidance and expectations for quality of teaching during the pandemic.

Should you have any issues with the quality of course being provided, you should first go through the complaint process with the university and then follow that complaint with the OFS before considering any formalities for a breach of contract.

I’ve paid my tuition fees in full  would I be able to apply for a partial refund if the number of scheduled lectures for my course have been reduced?

Should the University course be reduced then there could be an argument of a breach of contract and the right to ask for partial refund. This would be due to the university not upholding their contractual obligations. If however, the university is offering alternatives for the lectures scheduled and additional support then this may be reduce your ability for a partial refund.

Can I refuse to pay the full cost of tuition fees if the number of lectures on my course have been reduced or if they take place online?

You can check if your university is offering any reduction in tuition fees.  However, if the course is being fulfilled online, the university is complying with its contractual obligations and the quality of the course should be in line with the standards set out by the Office For Students (OFS). Complaints can be made to the OFS if the quality of the course is an issue.

A large number of my lectures have moved online – am I still obliged to pay full tuition fees as I will not be using university facilities, including the library, the café, sports clubs and societies?

The Government has set out guidelines for universities and recognise the importance of socialisation during University studies.  Public libraries are open so there shouldn’t be a reason that university libraries wouldn’t be and all social events and social areas should comply with social distancing measures.

As the course is being provided online also it would be very difficult to argue any entitlement to pay less than full tuition fees.

My University course will take place online – can I ask for a partial refund of tuition fees as it will be difficult to interact / meet professors, lecturers, TAs and other University staff?

According to Government guidance and the Office For Students (OFS), each University will have its own degree of online and face to face contact.  If no face to face contact is being offered, you should establish what remote support is being offered and access to lecturers and university staff.

If there is a lack of support in these areas then complaints should be raised with the university and the Office For Students. This would have to be looked into before requesting any partial refunds, as they could still be upholding their contractual obligations.

Authored by DAS

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