Young people are giving up on higher education due to a lack of rent support, with some even relying on lecturers for help.
Universities are being urged to provide rent guarantor services for students who have been in care or are estranged from their parents, with warnings that the current lack of support is forcing young people to quit.
Students without someone to share responsibility for their rent face a harrowing struggle to secure accommodation, which can disrupt or entirely derail their studies and leave them in precarious housing situations – in many cases at risk of homelessness.
While some students without a guarantor will be asked to pay six or 12 months’ rent in advance, potentially forcing them to drop out of university, The Independent has also been told of instances in which lecturers have stepped in to act as a guarantor at the request of their desperate students.
But despite the government pledging in February’s independent care review to increase the proportion of care leavers in higher education, just 36 per cent of universities currently mention guarantor services on their websites, according to the Unite Foundation charity.
As a result, the organisation has written to key government ministers and MPs on Monday urging them to back their campaign to ensure that universities offer such help to the roughly 16,000 care leavers and estranged students in the UK.
“It’s a simple ask and low-risk for universities,” said the charity’s director Fiona Ellison. “[It] helps to level a very uneven playing field and makes sure those students are not unfairly disadvantaged when it comes to finding accommodation.
“We shouldn’t let a simple issue, like not having access to a rent guarantor, be something that stops care experienced and estranged students from completing their degrees and reaping the lifelong benefits.”
And with student housing in the UK said to be approaching “crisis point”, as private rents soar and universities reel from the financial blow of the pandemic, Ms Ellison warned that the increased competition for accommodation was further intensifying the guarantor issue.
Jess, a 19-year-old care leaver in her second year at university, has already come up against needing a guarantor three times, and said it “would just be such a relief” if her university were to provide such a service.
While her aunt agreed to be her guarantor for her first year, she found herself forced to rely on her 18-year-old school friend, who had dropped out of university, for the following year’s accommodation – which was privately rented directly through her university – or else pay £6,800 in rent up front. As a result, she spent weeks trying to persuade him to help her, sharing with him every detail of her personal finances for the year ahead.
“Basically I put my entire [studies] on hold for a good few weeks until I managed, because if I hadn’t had a guarantor, I wouldn’t have had a place to live, and it’s not like I could go home for uni,” Jess told The Independent. “I don’t have a house. I’m a foster carer, I have no parents, so I live at uni full-time. There isn’t a home I can pop home to if I can’t quite sort rent in September.
“So I would have just had to drop out of uni, I would have been homeless, because you need a guarantor to get any kind of rent these days, or a reference or something … That’s the situation we’re in, and no one seems to help or understand it properly … It’s unbelievably stressful.”
However, Jess was forced to move out of her second-year accommodation over an issue which placed her in personal danger, and was only able to find a new place to stay by convincing the company to “bend the rules” in allowing her boyfriend – who lives overseas – to be her guarantor.
“Even when it’s a matter of my own safety where I’m being told that I need to move out, I can’t move out because that’s not an option for me,” she said. “When you think about things like that, it’s just bonkers. Anything can go wrong in student accommodation, and where would I go if something did go wrong? …I don’t have ‘home’ to go back to.”
Describing the guarantor issue as “a constant worry”, Jess added: “What would happen if I have to move again? There’s no stability for me at all. Everything is very up in the air.”
Cardiff University has been running a guarantor scheme since 2015, developed in conjunction with its students’ union, which is also available to international students. It has so far helped a total of 111 students, 16 of whom have been care leavers or estranged from their parents.
“To date, no students have defaulted,” a spokesperson said. “We have worked hard to avoid defaults by putting in place a robust process for assessing eligibility and setting an upper limit for rents.
“However, there are occasions where additional university support is necessary. For example, there are often discussions with landlords and university hardship funds have been made available to help avoid a student from defaulting. Therefore, guarantor schemes should form part of a wider package of support available at universities to help those students most in need.”
Sheffield University has also helped 102 students since setting up its guarantor service in 2016, with 19 people currently using the scheme. None of those students have defaulted on their rent.
But while a number of universities already provide guarantor services, in some instances students and even lecturers are not aware they exist.
Alice, a 19-year-old in the first year of her studies, was not told by her university until January that it offered a guarantor scheme, despite her fruitlessly calling and emailing for months to ask for help prior to starting in September.
While she was eventually able to convince an accommodation provider to allow her to stay without a guarantor, describing the lack of accessibility as “discrimination”, Alice can now be evicted immediately if anything in the property is damaged or if she falls behind on rent.
Because she feared she would be unable to attend university over the guarantor issue, Alice did not join any groups or attend social events beforehand, meaning she arrived not knowing anybody, and had instead been searching for a job or apprenticeship in her hometown despite “having always wanted to go to university”.
She is now moving back home to attend a different institution next year, in part because she was unaware of the guarantor scheme at her current university.
A guarantor scheme “would obviously make me feel more secure being here and feel a bit more like I belong here, in a sense”, said Alice, adding: “It [would] seem like they’re more open to taking care-experienced students than it seemingly being too much work for them. It would make it much more accessible for me.”
She warned that the guarantor situation “changes the narrative completely”, saying: “Before I knew about housing situations, it was like ‘is this a good university to go to, how do students do afterwards?’ Whereas now I’m thinking, ‘will I actually have somewhere to live once I get in?’”
“As much as there is a stigma around being care-experienced or estranged, you are just as worthy of having accommodation or having an education as anyone else is,” she added. “It shouldn’t be a barrier.”
Approached by The Independent, the education secretary said he was “urging universities and accommodation providers to make sure that suitable accommodation is available at a range of affordable price points”, adding that the government supports calls by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers for institutions to act as a guarantor for a private landlord.
But in a letter sent to Mr Halfon on Monday, Ms Ellison suggested that the Office for Students watchdog should mandate that universities must consider providing guarantor services, and explain why not if they wish to charge higher-level tuition fees of up to £9,250.
“If we are going to meaningfully increase the number of care leavers going into higher education we need to look at the fundamental reasons why many don’t feel like higher education is feasible in the first place or drop out when they’re there,” Ms Ellison wrote.
“Providing a guarantor service should be the kind of basic, entry-level part of” supporting care-experienced students, Ms Ellison told The Independent, warning that it “feels like quite a small thing” but “can have a really fundamental impact on whether [students] are able to stay at university”.
The government has made a “massive commitment” with its recent pledge to make the gap between the proportion of care leavers and general population who attend university – which currently sits at around 13 per cent versus 48 per cent – “minimal” by 2030, Ms Ellison said.
“So there’s got to be some magical interventions to make that happen,” she said. “Providing a guarantor service doesn’t feel like it’s a radical intervention.”
Ms Ellison said she fears “there is a whole lot of myths that sit behind why universities don’t do it, or can’t do it”, with she and her colleagues having “heard everything from our credit rating would suffer, to the bank account won’t allow us, to we’d be left with a huge tab of rent default”.
In fact, “there aren’t any institutions that we know of that have set something up and then pulled it because they’ve suddenly been lumbered with hundreds of students defaulting on their rent”, she said, adding: “For a very small cost, [it’s] a really meaningful intervention that institutions can provide.”