Eva Crossan Jory’s Wonkhe article on 24 March distilled a comprehensive set of requirements for private student landlords to support students through the Covid-19 crisis. This provided a positive challenge to providers like Unite.
Here I’ve shared how the biggest student landlord in the UK has responded to these challenges. This article has been written primarily with SUs in mind, partly to let you know what is available to students living with Unite Students, who also now own Liberty Living (74,000 students in total) but also to provide some insight into these decisions themselves and what it looked like at this end.
This may be helpful as you continue to campaign on behalf of students, however it is important to say that each landlord will have a different set of circumstances that could make these decisions more or less difficult for them.
Communications has been an important part of our crisis response. For students we have focused on:
Keeping our local teams up to date with the latest Public Health England advice, and providing them with posters and email templates to communicate on a local level
Sharing updated advice via our student website with a social media push
The speed of events over the last week has also required us to make rapid changes to policy and practice to protect the health of students and employees and to delay the spread of the virus. We have had to update student-facing comms on a daily basis and brief student-facing teams such as our 24hr contact centre. Our twice-daily updates and frequent comms calls have now become a way of life for many of us.
Support to isolate students with health needs
We have been in contact individually with students known to have a health condition that makes them vulnerable to the virus, and have encouraged further disclosures from all students who remain in their accommodation. Any student who wishes to isolate on site is being offered full support to do so.
Having a standing Incident Support Team has enabled us to respond quickly on this and similar issues. The team includes health and safety, security and student welfare professionals, with close links to university partners and operational managers across the UK.
Release from 2019/20 contracts
This will be the most financially challenging of all decisions that landlords have to make. Our Board took the decision early this week to release students and communicated it the following day.
However we had been actively working through this decision for a week before that to ensure that we had the liquidity and the processes in place to enable us to do so. As a public limited company this obviously has implications for our investors and shareholders, but they have been supportive in line with a greater investor focus on ethical business practices and social impact over recent years.
Flexibility on September 2020 tenancies
We expect and are hopeful that the new academic year in September will see a welcome return to something more familiar. Therefore we have a senior level group working through different scenarios at the moment so that we’re in a position to make good decisions with clear communications over the coming months.
Support for remainers and overstayers
We are acutely aware that some students are not able to return home because of travel restrictions, vulnerable family members or because their student accommodation is their primary home. Any student who needs to stay beyond the end of their tenancy date can do so at no further cost as long as we are able to accommodate them.
First and foremost, we want to make sure the buildings remain safe for students, so fire safety and building security have been prioritised in our staffing and processes. We are also working with universities, local authorities and other relevant local partners to ensure that remaining students have the support they need at this time.
About 200 of our tenants are living with us rent-free on Unite Foundation scholarships. As care leavers or estranged students, many do not have another home to return to. The Foundation team has been in touch with each of them and has worked with Unite Students local teams to ensure they are safe and supported.
Unite Foundation alumna Paige Mackenzie has started a daily podcast for students who are staying in their accommodation. “This is Us” is presented and produced by Paige with support from the Foundation team, and is designed to help students feel less isolated. It can be found here.
Creating and testing incident and crisis procedures is a lot of work can seem like a distraction during normal times. But over the last two weeks we have really felt their value because they have enabled us to respond quickly to an unprecedented and complex situation. For the future, I would recommend that PBSA providers’ crisis procedures should be an area of great interest to students’ unions on behalf of the students they serve.