Overseas students at the University of York went on a rent strike during the 2020 lockdown. Now, they’ve been told that refusal to pay rent could impact their immigration status
International student rent strikers at the University of York have been threatened with deportation by a debt collection agency hired by the university, according to members of the York Student Solidarity Network (YSSN).
On Friday, YSSN met with members of the University of York executive to demand that the university cease “its campaign of harassment” against students on rent strike. Since 2020, students have collectively withheld a total of £17,200 from the university, with only seven remaining on strike at present. Students initially went on strike in protest against their treatment over the COVID-19 pandemic, just as students across the country did. In January 2021, rent strikes were taking place in 55 of 140 UK universities – the biggest nationwide tenant action in 40 years.
Lilly*, 23, an international student at York from Malaysia, participated in the rent strike back in 2020. “Support from the university to students who were staying on campus was very limited,” she says, recalling living on campus over lockdown. “We were just given things like colouring books and chocolate and sweets.” She adds that other services initially offered by the university’s accommodation service were later taken off the table once the pandemic hit, with no reimbursement offered to students or replacement services put in place. “And at one point, self-isolating students at York were told that if there was a fire alarm that they should stay put – something which made national news,” Robyn*, 23, a masters student and spokesperson for YSSN, adds.
But while other universities negotiated with students – Manchester students won a 30 per cent rent cut, for example – students in York were offered no such rebate. “We took the decision to go on rent strike after seeing students in Manchester and Bristol and London doing the same and achieving massive wins,” Robyn says. “But the uni completely ignored our demands and refused to negotiate or bargain.”
Now, YSSN has demanded that the university write off the outstanding £17,200 debt, which they say is an “insignificant financial sum” to the university. But the university has reacted with hostility to their demand. According to YSSN, during Friday’s meeting, academic registrar Wayne Campbell suggested that the university’s provision of “lockdown loot bags” for isolating students – which contained sweets and colouring books – proved that the university looked after student wellbeing over the pandemic.
Moreover, YSSN alleges that rent strikers have now been threatened with withheld graduations and enforcement action by debt collectors, having recently hired debt collection agency ACT Credit Management Limited. For international students, this has involved being threatened with the revocation of their student VISAs and deportation.
One letter to an international rent striker published by YSSN reads: “if you do not contact us, we will have no option but to pass your account to an external agency for further action. Regrettably, this could ultimately lead to legal proceeding[s] that may affect the immigration status for international students”.
“I’ve been getting a lot of emails from them about the debt. My immigration status has been threatened in the emails,” Lilly says, adding that she’s recently been contacted by ACT Credit. “I remember seeing the first email that mentioned something about my immigration status. I was very, very worried – my heart just dropped,” she says. “I’ve moved halfway across the globe by myself – I don’t have family here in the UK. Just the thought of potentially getting kicked out because of this scares me a lot.”
“The university treats international students like cash cows,” she adds. “We pay over £20,000 per year for our tuition fees and we’re just seen as profit to them.”
The university’s financial director Jeremy Lindley reportedly told YSSN that the university itself would never threaten students with deportation, but acknowledged that once the cases were escalated to county court, the Home Office would be able to intervene and deport students stripped of their student VISAs. “They say it’s ‘out of their hands’, even though the only reason that this would come to pass is if they pursued the debt through county court, rather than writing the debt off,” Robyn says.
In response, the YSSN has called for Home Students who oppose this “blatant case of institutional racism” to cancel direct debit payments for fees and rent due on October 31. “We’re more than willing to escalate if the uni doesn’t back down, including occupations, rent strikes in January too,” Robyn says. “I personally will be going on rent strike over this, in solidarity with international students.”
A University of York spokesperson said: “We are a community built on the values of respect and fairness, and for that reason, we can’t ask the thousands of students living with us to pay rent while waiving fees for a few without appropriate justification.”
“The University strongly rejects the suggestion that any student has been threatened with deportation.”
“We are directly supporting students who have been in touch with us on this issue, and urge any other students to contact us so we can support them with personal payment plans or hardship funding based on their personal circumstances. We need to work together to resolve this issue, but we have also agreed with the external agency collecting debts to temporarily suspend action to give students time to contact us to get this support.”
“With the best interests of our students in mind, we would advise and forewarn any striking students that not paying rent could regrettably have consequences for their immigration status and/or credit history that are outside of the University’s control.”
*Names have been changed