Ben HaywardDecember 7th

UK students are planning the biggest wave of university rent strikes in forty years as frustrations grow over their treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.  

From heavy-handed hall lockdowns, being made to pay for empty rooms to a reduction in face-to-face teaching and as lack of online resources, there are currently at least 20 rent strikes either in action or being planned. 

Activists at Oxford and Sussex universities have been signing up hundreds of students ahead of the new term while Goldsmiths, University of London, Edinburgh and Cambridge are also involved. 

Speaking to the Guardian, Matthew Lee from Rent Strike, a grassroots group that is coordinating many of the campaigns, said students were fed up with being treated as ‘cash cows’ for universities. 

“This is the biggest wave of student renter militancy in over 40 years,” said Lee. “The last time there was resistance on this scale was in the mid-1970s.”

Activists are hoping to replicate the successful rent strike at Manchester University, which ended with the university agreeing to cut rent in its halls by 30% for the first term. 

At the time, the students who organised the campaign said this did not mark the end, and are now determined to force rent cuts for the rest of the academic year.

Ben McGowan, one of the Manchester organisers, said: “We are going to keep withholding our rent. We are helping other universities set up their own strikes because every student in the country deserves a rent cut.”

Partly, McGowan says rents should be reduced to cover the government’s ‘staggered return’ which will see students on non-practical courses come back across a five-week period in January.  

“Students should not be paying for halls when they are not there,” he said.

A Manchester University spokesperson said: “The university will be unable to provide further reductions, but students can decide to break their accommodation contract without financial penalty.”

In Cambridge, over 400 students have promised to join a rent strike amid anger that some colleges are making redundancies.

Laura Hone from Rent Strike Cambridge said: “The colleges are so rich they absolutely have the means to make rent cuts and ensure staff are not laid off.

“Yet they continually put profit ahead of the welfare of students and staff. They are run like businesses – that has become particularly stark in the context of the pandemic.

“The education system should prioritise the welfare of students and staff, but universities are not going to come to this conclusion on their own. Students have to make them listen and rent is the most powerful leverage we have.”

However, the largest rent strike will take place at Bristol University, where over 1,400 students have been demanding rent cuts of 30% for the whole year, more support and no-penalty contract releases.

Bristol University said it would offer students a 30% rent rebate for seven weeks to reflect the staggered return in 2021, along with penalty-free contract releases for students whose health has been impacted.

The National Union of Students (NUS) president, Larissa Kennedy, said students had been encouraged to move into halls due to universities relying on rents. 

“Students have been essentially lied to,” she said. “They were told campuses would be safe and there would be face-to-face teaching but, within days of arriving, many found teaching was completely online – or everything bar two hours of in-person teaching was online. 

“Understandably, students feel like they been trapped on campuses so universities can collect rent and fees.”

She added that the movement marks a ‘very clear rejection’ of the current funding model for higher education, which requires universities to generate more revenue to make up for reduced government funding.

She said: “Universities have turned into mega landlords, collecting millions of pounds in rent every year. A massive chunk of the inadequate maintenance support most students get is funnelled straight into these institutional landlords.”

Research conducted by the NUS found that average rents for student accommodation took up 73% of the student loan in 2018, up from 58% in 2012. 

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