My circumstances have changed and have to move
Unfortunately there are not many ways of getting out of a fixed term tenancy agreement, be they in private property or university-owned property. Tenancy agreements are legally binding documents and the failure to pay your rent means you or your guarantor could be asked to cover any rent arrears that you build up.
Once a fixed term ends without being renewed, a periodic tenancy starts and tenants can normally leave these with one month’s written notice. These are rare for tenants who rent through a letting agent, and especially students who usually have a tenancy for the whole academic year.
For students, most tenancies are Assured Shorthold Tenancies which usually cover the beginning to the end of your term time.
If your tenancy is an Assured Shorthold Tenancy, you have agreed to rent your accommodation for this amount of time. Moreover, most landlords request tenants to be jointly and severally liable. This means that you’re liable for your own share of the rent and if any of your other housemates can’t pay their share of the rent, then you’re all liable for that too.
Some tenancy agreements do have a break clause, which you should check your contract for. This will allow you to leave during your tenancy contract, if you give the right amount of notice at the right time. However, very few student contracts have such a clause.
It is always possible for parties to agree to end the tenancy at any time by way of a surrender. This needs to be done with a deed of surrender, which will formalise the agreement and release both the tenant and the landlord from their obligations. This is one of the few situations in which a letting agent can charge a fee to cover reasonable costs of reletting the property - in practice this may include rent for the period it takes them to find a new tenant.
It may also be possible to negotiate a rent reduction with your landlord/university. Citizens Advice says you're more likely to secure a rent reduction if your landlord is the university, as opposed to a private landlord, however every university has a different policy which you must find out. Ultimately, it is up to the university or landlord whether they decide to grant any reductions.
Finally, it might be possible to put forward a "frustration" argument, if you can’t access your accommodation, for example when campuses were shut down during the pandemic, or if it is impossible or illegal for you to travel to the accommodation (which is especially relevant to international students).
There have been some legal discussions as to whether this would apply for cases where the purpose of the accommodation is radically altered. For example, if it was closely tied to a student attending a course in a particular location, and the university is only offering the course remotely.
However, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic means that legal arguments are yet to be tested for student contracts and so it is not yet clear whether such an argument could be applied to break your obligation as a tenant.
In some circumstances, you may be able to end a tenancy early without penalty if the landlord had misrepresented it to you, or used other unfair methods to make you sign the contract. This is called the Right to Unwind and can be exercised by informing the landlord or agent that you wish to reject the contract within 90 days of it starting - ideally in writing. If the landlord does not agree, you may have to apply to the court to have this ruled on.
If it’s within 1 month you may get a refund of your rent. If it’s after 90 days you won’t be able to unwind the contract, but you may be able to apply for a discount on the rent. For more information see the Shelter website.