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Myth Debunking: A post-Easter mass return to halls and rented houses

  • 19 March 2021
  • By David Tymms

This blog was kindly contributed by David Tymms, Chair of the British Property Federation Student Accommodation Committee. You can find David on Twitter @TymmsDavid.

Much has been written in recent months on university students and the spread of Covid-19. The February 2021 Public Health England (PHE) study cited recently in an interesting and informative HEPI blog by Giles Carden and Lawrence Williamson indicated 17.8% of students had Covid-19 antibodies and a remarkable 49% of students in halls of residence in the autumn were estimated to have antibodies – 2.9 times the numbers living in other accommodation types. So, it is important to understand where these students are now living if campuses are to re-open on 12th April. Will there be a mass migration?

Where are students living currently?

Taking the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figure of circa 1.9 million full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students in Britain, we know from university filings and other data points that, in a normal year, around 700,000 students live in purpose built student accommodation (PBSA), either university or privately owned. The remainder predominantly reside in other rented accommodation (550,000), typically houses in multiple occupation (HMO’s) or with parents/guardians (370,000). The HMO figure is complex and almost certainly under-reported by HESA.

The student housing charity, Unipol, has been working with the Department for Education (DfE) and PHE to compile data on Covid-19 occupancy levels to inform the debate on a return to campuses for 12th April. Their survey work has thrown up some interesting figures. Submissions by a sample of the ten largest providers of private PBSA, accounting for 168,000 let beds, reveal that 95,000 (56.5%) of those beds are currently already occupied, with the number rising every week. The largest, Unite Group plc, also reported 65% occupancy of booked beds to the City this week. This should not perhaps come as a surprise. International students have largely been unwilling or unable to return home, so have remained in halls. I was struck when walking through LSE’s central London campus in February just how many students were milling around and using the facilities available. And this at an institution fully online until the end of the academic year.

The domestic students have also, in significant numbers, decided that sharing home working environments with parents and younger siblings is less desirable than living with flatmates back in their university town. Remember, current lockdown rules permit a return to a term-time address if the ‘home’ environment is not conducive to study or good mental well-being. Many thousands of students have already made that choice.

These numbers are perhaps even more surprising in the context of the rent waivers provided by many private (and university) PBSA operators for students willing or able to pause their accommodation contracts until after lockdown.

The HMO Position

The HMO position is less clear, as robust data is significantly harder to come by and institutional investment in student housing of this type is far lower than in the PBSA arena. Small, buy-to-let, landlords predominate, and anecdotal evidence suggests rent-waivers through Covid-19 have been a-typical. Some data has nevertheless been gathered by Unipol from their own substantial estate in Leeds and Nottingham, with extrapolated occupancy at 70% and 78% respectively and from one other large HMO provider who reported figures ranging from 55% to 98% across a number of cities. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) February snapshot, based on polling of 2,759 students, found 85% were ‘currently living at the same address as they were at the start of the autumn term’. This is however a complex finding to unpack and includes commuter students who have one fixed address.


Whatever DfE and PHE decide about re-opening England’s universities, PBSA operators have had 12 months to get to grips with managing halls in a Covid-19 secure manner. Hygiene protocols are the norm, common rooms remain closed and organised social events for now are suspended. With university rapid testing regimes in place, positive cases are mercifully rare and the support mechanisms for those isolating, well established.

Concerns about an April mass migration of students to university towns are understandable but, evidence suggests, likely misplaced. Survey data indicating circa 60% of students are already in halls and over 70% in their HMO’s will rightly inform public health thinking. Like you, I await DfE’s decision next month with interest.


  1. Joanna Brown says:

    As a careers advisor and parent of two students I concur with this article – both my third year (HMO) and first year (halls) children returned to university this term as did most of their friends – and I would strongly urge the government supported by the university sector to open universities to all students from April in line with the rest of education.

  2. Paddy Jackman says:

    It is in everyone’s, not least I suspect the parents’, best interest, to get students back to University for the summer term. If there are any positives to come from the pandemic it is that it has shown the essential part that the campus experience plays in the life of the vast majority of students’ lives. Although the summer term normally is focused on the exam timetable surely one term on campus would be hugely beneficial for all given that with lighter evenings and hopefully a s[ell of good weather social interaction outside might prove an option.

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