A number of students at Clare College are privately renting this year amid uncertainty about the nature of college life during the Covid-19 pandemicLouis Ashworth

Returning to Cambridge amidst a pandemic, an increasing number of students are making the move from college-owned halls of residence to privately-rented accommodation. Varsity has spoken to some of these students, to gain an insight into why so many are making the transition.

Due to the necessities of social distancing, colleges have been forced to change and update their accommodation policies to reflect the latest government guidelines. Speaking to Varsity, it seems these policies also provided the final push for many who had previously considered living out of college.

“Although there may be different secondary reasons for wanting to move out” one student from Churchill told Varsity, “I think ultimately the inevitability of Covid policies in colleges made people want to consider alternative options.”

At Clare College, students entering their third year were informed that they would not be able to ballot for rooms as normal and would instead have to remain in the room where they have been for second year.

One student going into their third year at Clare told Varsity that “my room in 2nd year was awful, really small and no natural light” and that the decision to cancel the ballot was “the main reason” for them choosing to move out.

Another student from Clare told Varsity that it was “mostly the college’s response” which informed their decision. They went on to say that “if I had been moved I wouldn’t have thought about it in the slightest but I’m so much happier living out”, and “I think it’s [living out] going to be so much more common now.” Clare College did not respond to Varsity’s request for comment.

At Queens’ College, students are also being driven out of college accommodation by Covid-19 related accommodation policies. Normally, Queens’ uses the quarterly payment scheme under which students can opt in to pay an additional 20% on their rent in exchange for being able to remain in college over the holidays.

However, students at Queens' have now been informed that the quarterly payment scheme will no longer be an opt-in system but will be mandatory for all students in college accommodation. Whether or not students remain in college over the holidays, their rent will be inflated by 20%.

One student at Queens’ told Varsity that even before the rent increase he had been paying “£1000 per month, and the [license] was only 6 months (during term).” Whereas by living out “I’m paying for the smallest room in my house for 11 months. At £455/month. So £5005 in total and almost double the amount of time in tenancy.”

Although Varsity understands that Queens’ has made funds available for students who are unable to pay rent, these increases have still encouraged students to move out of college and into private renting. Queens’ did not respond to Varsity’s request for comment.

It is not only changes to housing policy that have raised concerns. Students have also told Varsity that they no longer believe that life in college will be enjoyable or safe for them as the pandemic wears on.

“One of the main concerns for me was about what college are calling ‘households’,” one student at Homerton told Varsity. “Essentially, you are grouped with 14 other students and share a kitchen. If one of them gets sick or has symptoms, the entire household has to quarantine. I was worried this could happen frequently throughout my final year, disrupting both my studies and what’s left of my social life in a pandemic.

“Instead, I’m living with three close friends outside of college. I wouldn’t be as frustrated if I had to isolate if one of them was ill and the likelihood of that happening is (hopefully) smaller. I also was worried about the potential atmosphere inside college — with people being very stressed about the virus and distrustful of each other or alternately not following the rules.” Homerton did not respond to Varsity’s request for comment.

Students from different colleges share the concern that college social distancing measures will either fail or restrict them unnecessarily. A student from Queens’ said that it was “way safer” to be in an out-of-college house of six people rather than in college accommodation, “as college social distancing measures will inevitably fail.” They went on to say that they would “prefer to police ourselves and have genuine commitment to government guidelines rather than be at the whim of college.”


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Even the University announced in a recent email that, “the risk of outbreaks is expected to be higher in College accommodation, where the density of students and potential for interactions are greater.” It appears this rationale has made many students feel it is safer to avoid college accommodation all together.

This comes as universities across the country begin to experience severe outbreaks of Covid-19 with the return of students for the academic year. At Manchester Metropolitan University, 1,700 students have been told to self isolate as 127 students test positive for the virus. Students at St Andrews University are being urged to remain at home to avoid a potentially deadly surge of new cases.

Safety aside, many students simply feel that the freedom of life outside of college makes the move worth it. One student at Homerton told Varsity that “we felt we had outgrown being at college – we often found they treated us like kids when it suited them and adults when it suited them, so it’s been nice to have our own space to make our own decisions.”

Whether it is for reasons of safety, security, or simply freedom, the move away from college accommodation appears to be a growing trend. As more students choose to rent privately, the pressure will be on colleges to adapt to the changing demands of the pandemic and ensure that those who do choose to remain can do so safely and with minimum disruption to their lives.

The University has not responded to Varsity’s request for comment.