University students have wasted nearly £1bn on empty rooms in flat shares and halls of residence that they have been unable to use because of coronavirus restrictions this academic year, according to a new estimate.

The average student has so far paid £1,621 in rent for empty rooms for which they have not received a refund, according to an annual survey of 1,300 university students by money advice website Save the Student.

Two in five (43%) respondents said they had spent under three months on campus, while nearly half (46%) would have made different decisions about where to live had they understood the likely impact of the pandemic on their education. One in three plan to ask their landlords for a break clause next year to give them more flexibility.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education, said: “Students have been consistently exploited and ignored during this pandemic. We are seen as cash cows, with many stuck paying extortionate rents for properties they either cannot use or cannot afford.”

Students’ anger with high rents, which Save the Student estimates take up three-quarters of their maintenance loans at an average of £146 per week, boiled over on UK campuses this term as students launched the largest rent strike in 40 years.

There has been a patchy response from universities, private halls of residence and landlords, with some refusing discounts while others have offered full rebates. The survey suggests a third of students have been offered a discount, which averages at £75, though this has been extended to just 6% of students in private rentals. Half of the those surveyed were unhappy with their accommodation provider’s response.

On 14 February, 92 students at the School of Oriental and African Studies became the first to withhold the outstanding 50% instalment of their tuition fee payments in protest at their university’s coronavirus response. They were joined by 1,000 students – a fifth of the student body – who signed a petition asking for fee reductions.

The government has so far responded to students’ financial concerns with £70m in additional hardship funding, a figure that falls short of more generous packages in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Most students have been asked to remain at the address where they spent Christmas – in many cases their family homes – during lockdown. Plans for their return are expected to be announced next week, although university leaders are preparing for the possibility that many students will not be allowed on campus until 17 May, shortly before the end of the teaching year. St Andrews University and the London School of Economics have already told students that most will study online for the remainder of the year.

Universities UK said: “Decisions on accommodation costs are a matter for individual universities, taking into account the circumstances at their institutions and of their students. But with the vast majority of students not renting university-owned accommodation, there is an ongoing issue about support for those with contracts in the private sector as well as assistance for non-residential students who have been financially hit by the pandemic.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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