Like many students caught up in the pandemic, 19-year-old Gracie* has spent the last few months feeling desperately worried about her finances. The daughter of a single parent on a low income, she was told she owed Nottingham Trent University more than £6,000 in rent because she spent just six days living in the university’s student accommodation last September.
It is a debt that, until Guardian Money stepped in and took up her case, she had no idea how she would ever manage to repay.
“I don’t have the money,” she says. “I don’t have a job and none of my family are working. We don’t have that sort of money lying around.”
Gracie, who received free school meals when a pupil, won a highly coveted sports scholarship to study coaching and sports science at Nottingham Trent last year but left less than a week into her course after local newspaper reports that coronavirus cases were rising in the city’s student hotspots.
“I just couldn’t cope, being there, with the Covid situation what it was,” she says, adding that she was scared of mingling with other students and using the communal kitchen. “I felt trapped in my room.”
Concerned about her mental health and wellbeing, Gracie’s family supported her decision to leave her course, and she moved out only six days after she had arrived, on 3 October. She assumed that because she had a two-week cooling-off period in which she could leave her course without being liable for any fees, the same terms would apply to her accommodation.
But the small print of her rental contract, the first one she had signed in her life, stated otherwise. Her cooling off-period had, in fact, ended three weeks before she took up her place at university. Despite losing her scholarship and her access to student loan finance by quitting her course, she was still liable for rent for the rest of the academic year, unless someone else decided to move into her room, the university told her.
Gracie’s case emerged in the same week it was claimed that university students have “wasted” almost £1bn on empty rooms in flatshares and halls of residence that they have been unable to use because of coronavirus restrictions. The estimate was based on a survey carried out by the money advice website Save the Student.
Having such a large debt hanging over her had a huge impact on her mental health, Gracie says. Recently she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression: “I’m now on anti-depressants.” Before she left for university, she had been a cheerful, sporty young woman who was crowned student of the year at her former sixth form college.
She appealed against the university’s decision to hold her to her rental contract but her claim was rejected twice by different reviewers. Her request then went to the final stage of the university’s appeals process.
“I’ve been having sleepless nights most nights, and so have all my family,” she says, sounding close to tears.
Her tutor did not warn her she would still be liable for her rent when she told him she was worried about living in her student accommodation during the pandemic and was considering leaving, she says. She felt under pressure to sign her rental agreement quickly in order to accept her place at university, she adds, and did not fully understand the terms because of the legal language used.
Nottingham Trent initially said Gracie, like all students in its accommodation, had agreed to the university’s terms when she signed the rental contract.
“She was given full notification of the relevant cooling-off period by our accommodation team and accepted this,” a spokesperson says.
When asked why her appeals had been rejected, the spokesperson says that appeals in such matters are normally only successful “where there are serious extenuating circumstances that could not have been predicted prior to the cancellation deadline for the contract”.
Gracie’s grandfather Martin says: “They’re saying the Covid pandemic is not exceptional circumstances. Well, we’re saying it is. There’s a worldwide pandemic, and some people are not coping with it. And she was one of them.”
In response to suggestions that the university was showing a lack of compassion to Gracie, given the amount of financial hardship she is in, the spokesperson says: “We also have processes in relation to appeals and financial hardship but financial hardship has not been raised by this student so far in her two appeals with us.”
Gracie sent Guardian Money proof that she had raised the matter of her financial hardship in her initial appeal. She has also tried to seek help from the university’s financial advice service coordinator but her request for a meeting was turned down.
The day after we pointed this out to the university, it changed its stance and decided to waive Gracie’s outstanding debt.
As part of the appeals process, “Gracie has recently provided more details of the particular impact that this has had on her financial circumstances and, in light of this, the university has therefore agreed to waive the outstanding accommodation debt”, the spokesperson says.
Gracie says: “I’m so relieved. It feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Now I can get on with my life.”
Her grandmother Cris says she “cannot begin to explain” the relief the decision has brought to the entire family but adds: “It is such a shame that it took bullish persistence from a high-profile broadsheet to push them to look at this in a decent and proper manner. I hope there is justice for other students in similar situations as a result of this.”
Larissa Kennedy, the president of the National Union of Students, says she has come across many stories like Gracie’s in recent months.
“My rage and solidarity is with each and every one of them,” she says. “The Treasury urgently needs to step in and provide financial support and a rent rebate for every single student in need – students deserve better than to be ignored by this government, caught in contracts for accommodation they can’t live in or can’t afford.”
*Gracie did not want to give her full name.