A UK university has enlisted debt collectors to demand money withheld by students in rent strikes during the pandemic, as tensions rise over refund and support policies for accommodation during lockdown.

In the past week, Bristol university wrote to students who had withheld rent to tell them their details could be passed to STA International, an external debt collection agency, if they did not pay within 14 days or failed to respond. The move echoes warnings by landlords and other student accommodation providers this year.

The email, seen by the FT, marks an uncomfortable new phase in a year of tension in higher education. Students have participated in rent strikes at more than 50 universities after facing continued high charges for housing and tuition fees while classes moved online, and national lockdowns restricted students to their rooms or barred them from moving to university altogether.

“A lot of people are angry, but the main thing is they’re worried,” said Louis Holmes, a first year politics student and one of more than 1,000 who participated in Bristol’s rent strike. “A lot of students are having a tough time right now . . . It really does speak to how higher education institutions are more focused on their financial models than students.”

Bristol said it had offered students in halls the equivalent of a 25 per cent annual discount in rent and access to a support package worth £16.5m.

“The latest letter tells them that the debt may be passed to a company, as is standard procedure once we have exhausted our own income collection processes,” said Robert Kerse, the university’s chief operating officer. “We have regularly reminded students what support is available and have encouraged them to get in touch if they’re having any financial difficulties.”

Scant government support and patchwork provision has left students facing a lottery over their rent obligations. While some universities offered full refunds, many students renting from private landlords were forced to pay thousands of pounds in rent despite often being unable to return to university after a ban on non-essential face-to-face teaching and travel was introduced during the Christmas holidays.

Other smaller providers including Sanctuary, which warned students they could face debt collectors last year, have offered no refunds.

An FT survey of the 10 largest student accommodation companies found that while some, such as iQ and Student Roost, offered 100 per cent refunds for more than two months if students did not return to their rooms, others offered only partial rebates or none at all.

Unite, the largest provider with 74,900 beds, according to Cushman & Wakefield, suspended all rents for students who returned home in the first lockdown from March 2020, but scaled back concessions this year, offering students a discount of 50 per cent if they were not living in their accommodation.

Other providers manage rather than own blocks of halls. Homes for Students and CRM, which collectively house nearly 40,000 students, said they worked with owners and investors to offer discounts or refunds but this had not been possible in all properties.

For the 39 per cent of students that, according to the National Student Accommodation Survey, rent from a non-corporate landlord, no discount or refund scheme is available, leaving many paying full rent. In April 2021, a survey by the National Union of Students found more than one-fifth of students were unable to pay their rent in full in the previous four months.

At Sheffield Hallam University, where halls are run by private companies rather than the university, students living in properties run by Abodus were offered no refunds, even if their rooms were unoccupied. Those withholding their rent have been issued with warnings of legal action.

In March, solicitors acting for Abodus told rent striker Zachary Larkham he had 30 days to pay £2,048, including legal costs, or face court proceedings or an eviction order. He said he has been unable to pay after he lost his job last March.

“The only way to afford uni would have been to work,” he said. “I haven’t got any savings left. I am broke.”

Abodus said it had clearly informed students of rent obligations and offered students the opportunity to stay in their rooms for free for an extra four weeks in the summer. “We have set out to prioritise those most in need of help and have considered any ‘special circumstance’ cases related to Covid for release from tenancy,” it said.

Stretched university finances have been placed under greater strain by rent rebates, and vice-chancellors have urged the government to provide greater support.

The Department for Education said it had recently distributed an additional £85m for those students most in need, including those struggling with accommodation costs. “If students think their accommodation provider is treating them unfairly, they have the option to raise a complaint with the Competition and Markets Authority,” it said.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 76 per cent of students were living at their term-time address by March this year.

Holmes said many students had been brought back on “false promises”. Oscar Ward, housing officer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said mounting bills meant many students felt forced to travel back to their student accommodation despite government guidance to the contrary. “They were left with no other choice than to have to pay,” he said.

Ward said the mixed offer of private halls in London, where students from different universities live in dozens of private halls each with different rental arrangements, made it harder to help students or campaign for support.

“These private companies do not have the level of public visibility or responsibility to students,” he said. “It’s universities shirking their responsibility.”