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UK university rent strikes
Via Twitter @RentStrikeCam

‘We won’t pay until they listen’: inside the historic uni rent strikes

Students across the country are planning the biggest rent strike in 40 years, as they accuse universities of treating them as ‘cash cows’ during the pandemic

“The situation we were in when we signed these contracts is hugely different to the situation now,” assert the organisers behind the Goldsmiths Rent Strike. “If money is what will make them listen, then we won’t pay until they do.”

Goldsmiths is just one of many UK higher education institutions currently facing an uprising from its students. Since arriving on campus in September, students’ lives have been marred by mass, disorganised lockdowns – the result of a lack of government and university planning in the face of inevitable coronavirus outbreaks.

Many students have accused their universities of lying to them, luring them to campus with the false promise of face-to-face teaching. Institutions have also been criticised for their lack of mental health support, as well for failing to provide adequate food packages and other essentials during mandatory quarantines.

First year students living in halls have been particularly affected by these complaints, many of whom are paying extortionate rent for tiny spaces and substandard accommodation. Now, they’re fighting back. Students from at least 20 institutions are preparing for the largest university rent strike in four decades, as they refuse to be treated as “cash cows” by profit-driven unis.

“10 years on since the student movement and the Millbank occupation, students and university staff across the country are still being squeezed,” Cambridge, Cut the Rent tells Dazed. “Through rent hikes, pay-freezes, and now pandemic layoffs, universities have stayed afloat by exploiting the people who create the university. The problems that students have identified in their universities’ responses to the pandemic are directly attributable to the marketisation of higher education.”

The University of Cambridge group is fighting for a 30 per cent rent reduction, no COVID job losses, and for students to work remotely if they want to. “The rent we paid has been unncessary to complete our degrees,” the group continues, referencing ongoing virtual learning, “but it’s what has allowed universities to stay open. We’re launching a rent strike because we want to hit them where it hurts.”

Liam, a first year student at the University of Sussex, and an organiser with the Sussex Renters Union, tells Dazed: “There has been a dereliction of duty by the university to address the serious concerns of students, in terms of mental health, quality of education, and maintenance of accommodation. As rent makes up a significant amount of the university’s profit, it falls to us to withhold it in order to bring the university into a dialogue with students.”

“Students were brought back to the university when it obviously wasn’t safe, deliberately to acquire our rent” – Oxford, Cut the Rent

Students in the University of Sussex’s halls of residence will start withholding their rent on January 12 until the institution meets their demands, including a 40 per cent rent reduction, no penalty for exiting a tenancy, and no disciplinary action for strikers. Liam says, at the time of writing, that the university “has made no attempts to adequately engage with valid concerns that are being raised in this rent strike”.

The situation is similar at the University of Oxford, where students are calling for a 30 per cent rent reduction. “Students were brought back to the university when it obviously wasn’t safe, deliberately to acquire our rent,” members of Oxford, Cut the Rent tell Dazed. The group has accused colleges of deliberately raising rents ahead of students returning to campus, claiming that Christ Church and Balliol College increased their rents by four and seven per cent respectively since the previous academic year.

“We’re striking to express our anger and frustration at the injustice of the neoliberal university, which makes rents so high that maintenance loans and bursaries often aren’t enough to cover it. We want an end to the priority of profit before our welfare.”

As well as calling for a 50 per cent rent cut, striking students at Goldsmiths are also fighting against “the shameful way (the university has) handled cases of sexual violence and racism on campus”, and are urging the insitution to improve its mental wellbeing services.

“Goldsmiths has cut the student union’s Against Sexual Violence funding,” the group tells Dazed. “We’ve heard multiple reports of the poor quality of the university’s way of dealing with cases of sexual violence, and (their lack of) support for survivors in halls.” Students say they haven’t received a response from Goldsmiths yet, “but we expect this to come in January when the strike goes ahead”.

The lack of support by universities has been at the forefront of student complaints in recent months, particularly in relation to mental health services. In October, the National Union of Students (NUS) warned of a rise in student anxiety amid COVID restrictions, while The Tab reported last month that at least one university student has died weekly since the start of term. The father of 19-year-old University of Manchester student Finn Kitson, who died in October, suggested that the “little support” his son received contributed to the “severe anxiety” that may have led to his passing.

Students in Cambridge say the university’s welfare system “has always been bursting at the seams, with waiting lists for counselling longer than entire terms”, but that it hasn’t adapted to “the mental health needs of students” in 2020. “Mindfulness sessions are no replacement for a social network,” Cambridge, Cut the Rent explains, “which most freshers haven’t had a chance to build.”

“Mental health support has been appallingly inadequate,” 18-year-old University of Manchester student Ben McGowan told Dazed last month. “People are far from home with people they don’t know very well, and they feel isolated without a support network.”

McGowan, one of Rent Strike Manchester’s organisers, was instrumental in helping students at the University of Manchester win a 30 per cent rent cut for the first half of the academic year. Last month, rent-striking students began an occupation of a university building in demonstration against high rents, poor living conditions, and a lack of support. Just a week earlier, first years ripped down fences surrounding their halls, after the university caged them in without warning.

“We believe the university has broken its contract in providing us unsafe accommodation, and lying to bring us onto campus for profit, rather than our wellbeing,” 18-year-old University of Manchester student Izzy Smitheman told Dazed in November. “The university has been consistently neglectful.”

Speaking to The Guardian following the university’s decision, McGowan said: “It’s a big relief; it does feel like a big victory. But it’s a shame it took so much. This isn’t the end of student anger at the university. I hope it’s a moment for students on campus to see direct action work and us actually win.”

Students at Bristol also won a 30 per cent rent rebate, which will be applied during the government’s proposed staggered return to universities period. The Tories have asked students to stay at home after Christmas, returning in stages between January 4 and February 7.

Connor Nicol, a first year student and organiser with Rent Strike Bristol tells Dazed that although the result is “encouraging” and “demonstrates the power that students can hold when they unify together”, it only covers “a period of time where a large number of students won’t have access to their accommodation”. Writing on Twitter, the group added: “We’re gonna keep striking in January and show them the bare minimum isn’t good enough.” 

Though it’s not exactly as much as students wanted, the victories in Manchester and Bristol have undoubtedly galvanised those at other institutions. “By joining a national wave of rent strikes, we’re campaigning for a rent discount this year within the wider fight for a university system run in the interest of students and staff,” declares Oxford, Cut the Rent.

“Seeing the student movement come alive at such a crucial time is truly inspiring” – University of London Rent Strike

Nicol says it’s been “really heartwarming to see students unite across the country”, adding that “the overwhelming support and camaraderie between rent strikers has encouraged everyone to keep pushing, and has kept us unified against some of the universities’ attempts to divide us and break the strike”.

An intercollegiate group of students from the University of London Rent Strike say that “seeing the student movement come alive at such a crucial time is truly inspiring”. The group is demanding a 40 per cent rent reduction, no staff redundancies, and proper quarantine food and mental health support for students. “We launched just two days ago, but already students have pledged to withhold over £100,000 in rent. When we collectively demand change, we can be immensely powerful, and rent strikes are the best tool we have.”

Liam agrees. “The beauty of this rent strike is that, even in a pandemic, it has helped us regain some sense of community.”

“The colleges want it to be business as normal, but it’s not,” says the Oxford, Cut the Rent spokesperson. “If you force students to come back just to have them sit in their rooms watching virtual lectures, and you raise the rent even more than usual to cover your losses, that tells me you don’t care about students, you care about profit.”