The UK’s largest student accommodation provider has offered its tenants a 50 per cent discount if coronavirus restrictions have stopped them returning for their studies, as a growing number of universities have announced a suspension of all rent payments for rooms they own.

Unite Students, which operates 177 properties in the UK, said it expected about 50,000 students, or two-thirds of its tenants, who are unable to return between January 18 and February 14 to claim the partial refund for the period.

The company said it was “the right thing to do” after prime minister Boris Johnson last week ordered a third lockdown in England, pushed back most on-campus teaching until February, leaving the majority of students who had travelled home for the Christmas unable to return to university.

In recent days, some universities, including Cambridge, London School of Economics, Warwick and Sheffield, have announced they would not require students living in accommodation they own to pay any rent while they are not in halls. Other institutions have offered partial rebates for the period students need to stay away.

Student campaigners said the piecemeal approach exposed the lack of support for the hundreds of thousands of students and fell far short of compensation for a diminished study experience that costs thousands of pounds a year.

The majority of students who rent from private landlords on the open market or other speciality providers are still having to pay full rent.

The National Union of Students on Monday called for “government-led action” and financial support for all student tenants to receive full rent refunds and be given the option to break their contracts. Students at more than 40 institutions are staging rent strikes in protest.

“It is simply unacceptable that students are being told to not live in housing they have paid for, on public health grounds, yet are receiving no government support,” said Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president of the NUS.

Universities, under growing pressure to offer relief to student tenants, have called on the government to act by partially forgiving loans for this academic year.

The government welcomed Unite’s move and Michelle Donelan, universities minister, said she “would encourage all universities and accommodation providers to review their accommodation policies to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart”.

Two other large student accommodation provider contacted by the Financial Times said they would continue to charge full rent. Campus Living Villages, with more than 11,000 tenants, said it would “continue to provide supportive accommodation services to all our residents” at halls that “remained open”.

Sanctuary Students, a landlord for about 10,000 students, said it had “reassured” its tenants it would consider new guidance.

Unite estimated that its offer, which also includes an option for students to extend their contract into the summer for four weeks free of charge, would cost it £8m in lost revenue.

Richard Smith, chief executive, said the decision to offer a discount “had its challenges” but said he was confident that Unite would be in a strong position for the next academic year.