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August 7, 2023

Why we need to address the issue of student rent guarantors

Fiona Ellison

“I was homeless when I applied for university and was using it as a way to pull myself out of the situation after trying everything else, so finding out that despite managing to get into university, I may not be able to attend because I couldn’t find a guarantor was very disheartening and it was hard to fight feelings of despair.”  - Courtney, student

The evidence shows that people who have experienced care in their childhood have significantly greater risk of homelessness. The 'Could universities do more to end homelessness?' report from the Centre for Homelessness Impact published in 2022 highlights the key drivers contributing to an increase in likelihood of those with care experience becoming homeless. Many care experienced young people talk about the long term impact that a lack of family or parental privilege has on things non-care experienced people take for granted. 

One such thing is moving away from home to go to university. For many young people this is a rite of passage and acts as a transition towards independent living. But for students who have lived with a foster family or in a children’s home, unforeseen obstacles can lie in their way.

One such obstacle is accessing a rent guarantor. It is an issue for all students, but one which affects estranged and care experienced students disproportionately.  If you don't have family to call on, the process of accessing a rent guarantor can be challenging. 

Without a rent guarantor, students can be asked to pay six or 12 months’ rent in advance. This is an additional financial burden for students who are already under additional financial pressure with the current cost of living crisis. 

The issue of rent guarantor can have a huge and detrimental impact on students. The need to provide a rent guarantor is coming to the fore at the moment as we see the combination of much greater demand for student housing and constraints on supply. The result is that landlords can pick and choose tenants - why would they risk not having a guarantor? 

The increase in the cost of student housing means the realistic ability of being able to pay six or 12 months’ rent in advance is severely diminished. 

At the Unite Foundation, we believe being a care experienced or estranged student shouldn’t mean being disadvantaged when it comes to finding somewhere to live when at university.

There are 16,000 students identified as being care leavers or students estranged from their families currently at university in the UK. Whilst this is about 2% of undergraduate students there is real discrepancy in their involvement in higher education. Just 13% of care leavers go to university by the time they are 19 compared to 43% of non-care experienced peers. 

The Positive Impact? research published in 2020 showed that "Care leavers who complete their university courses really can transcend their backgrounds and do at least as well in their future careers as other students – but too many care leavers and estranged students leave university early." 

Whilst the data isn't detailed enough to share why students leave - access to safe and secure housing is undoubtedly a key driver to them leaving. 

Students have told us that being able to access a rent guarantor is the difference between them continuing their degree or not, or even accessing a university education in the first place. 

However whilst there is a simple solution - the provision of a rent guarantor service - research conducted by students from our This is Us community found that just 36% of universities signpost help on rent guarantors and even fewer actually provide a rent guarantor service for students.

That's why we at the Unite Foundation are calling on universities to step in and provide a rent guarantor service, whether directly or through a third party, for students who don’t have a parent or family member to call upon. 

We know it can be done. When The Independent investigated the issue of rent guarantors they included examples from Cardiff University who have been running a scheme for 8 years without and students defaulting; the same result came from the University of Sheffield who've been running their scheme for 7 years.  

We know from our ‘This is Ten Years of Impact’ report that, given the right support (somewhere to live), care experienced and estranged students progress from their first year at the same rate as non-care experienced students, and complete their degrees and are awarded good honours degrees at a statistically significantly higher rate than other care leavers. But finding stable accommodation without a rent guarantor is almost impossible.

Find out more about the campaign to increase rent guarantor provision.

Read our report 'Could universities do more to end homelessness?'

Fiona Ellison is Director of the Unite Foundation

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