Student housing: should I stay at home or live in the ‘social bubble’?

Mitch Chambers wants to live at home when he goes to university this year. Chambers, who hopes to study maths at the University of Birmingham, considered staying in halls, but decided against it. “I chose to stay at home because it’s easier financially, and is probably a more stable option during the pandemic,” he says. “Who knows what will happen?”

Chambers isn’t alone in making a difficult decision about where to live. Students must always decide between different types of living arrangements, and this year the Covid-19 pandemic is another factor to consider.

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In reality, the options around accommodation remain pretty much the same, says Ian Munton, director of library and student services at the University of Staffordshire. Students must choose between student halls, private accommodation such as shared houses, or commuting.

First-year students normally stay in halls of residence. This year, the experience will be different, with some unis planning to create “social bubbles” where students may have to live with coursemates.

“At the start of the year, those in one block might not be able to go to another block or flat. That’s no different from [the rules for] houses generally,” Munton says. Some other safety measures being looked at are reducing the number of students per flat, increased cleaning, and ensuring there is a longer lead-in time for students to arrive at university.

Ian Jones, deputy director of accommodation at the University of Sheffield, says nothing should feel too strange for students: measures in public spaces will be similar to elsewhere, such as floor markings to ensure distance and the provision of hand sanitisers. “But we’re looking at ways to do as many in-person social activities as we can,” he says, for instance by making use of outdoor space.

Jones advises students to talk to someone at the university if they’re worried. “One thing we can do is sit down in person or online with everyone in the flat and come to a flatmate agreement on how things like cleaning will be managed.”

Students who are in high-risk groups don’t have to rule out student accommodation either, he says. “Ring up and speak to the accommodation office to see what’s in place,” he advises. Universities may be able to provide special accommodation with fewer people, so have those conversations, he says.

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With so much still up in the air, is it wise to sign up for accommodation now, or should students leave it until the last minute? Many unis say they will release you from contracts if coronavirus guidance changes pre-September. However, this may not be the case everywhere, or for private accommodation.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, a housing partner at law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, says it’s all down to the contract. So look for a clause that says if you can’t attend, you can waive the rent. “Just be wary,” he says. “A lot of students don’t know that many halls of residence are now owned privately. Ask the university what guarantees they can give you.”

Dan Roberts, founder of Mystudenthalls, says some private providers have introduced special Covid-19 cancellation policies, so look for this in the contract. However, providers without such a policy may not be willing to negotiate an early release from tenancies if there is a second wave of coronavirus.

All this may make commuting seem like an appealing option. If you opt to stay at home you’ll need to look at transport, as well as at the support your uni offers. You should be able to access the library and other essential student facilities.

Whatever option you go for, remember it will be different this year. “It’s not going to be the same experience,” Jones says, “but I think it’ll be a really good one.”

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