When students move away to university, their first year in halls of residence can be one of the most memorable years of their life. A new city filled with new people and an introduction to the truly lethal concept of a ‘treb’. A global pandemic scuppered those dreams for this year’s intake, but students were still encouraged to take up accommodation places with the promise of blended learning.
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When they arrived, they were then met with household mixing bans and a “Zoom-style” university. Frustrations built last semester and over the next term, and thousands of students will be taking part in a rent strike, pledging to withhold accommodation payments to universities and private companies.
Organisers say more than 50 universities are now taking part in rent strikes, and a virtual National Rent Strike Rally on the 25th of January is attracting speakers including Guardian Columnist Owen Jones, General Secretary of the Universities and College Union Jo Grady and NUS President Larissa Kennedy.
Zac, an organiser for rent striking at Sheffield Hallam, said students began to realise in December that the government’s plan for a staggered return to university in January was unrealistic. With the looming prospect of paying for accommodation you weren’t allowed to live in, he said a committee of around ten first years had “basically campaigned all throughout Christmas to get people to go on rent strike.” At Hallam, where all halls are privately owned, 500 students had pledged to withhold rent payments, and Zac said more people were signing up every day.
For many of this year’s intake, the cost of accommodation is another reason to strike. Georgia, a student at UAL, explained that “[the university] has incredibly expensive accommodation, a lot of our students were reliant on part time jobs that they’ve now lost.”
With maintenance loans often not covering the cost of accommodation, Oison, an organiser at Swansea University, also had this concern, “on a maintenance loan, you can’t access Universal Credit. But because of the pandemic, you can’t go out and get a job.”
Universities might point out that they have various hardship funds available to students struggling financially. Georgia thought these processes were too long and tiring, “just offering a [rent] reduction would make it so much simpler for everyone.”
With students now being told to stay at home, many are still paying for accommodation they’re not allowed to return to. Some students who managed to get back to halls just before lockdown are also taking part in strikes to show universities just how frustrated they are.
Money isn’t the only factor at play for strikers. Georgia, said, “we’ve had really bad experiences with staff, we’ve had no hot water, no running water, we once had no WiFi for two days, even though everything’s online.” Oison thought accommodation wasn’t fit for purpose, saying halls weren’t designed “to live in all day.”
Zac shared Georgia’s concerns about staff, saying “security guards see their role as more like prison officers. They will just walk into someone’s flat, look around, and then leave again.”
Accommodation services inadequate response to the pandemic also angered students. When UAL had a Covid-19 outbreak in halls, Georgia said, “the university hadn’t organised any sort of food packages. So, we were expected to pay out for deliveries. When I had to start isolating, I couldn’t get a slot for five days. My mum had to come up from [home] to bring me food.”
Zac said the strike was also caused by universities not dealing with a whole host of issues that affect students. He reeled off a list; poor mental health services, staff working conditions and zero hours contracts, the lack of academic safety net, a failure to deal with sexual harassment and assault. At one halls, he said, “two girls reported assault to the accommodation services, and were told by security something along the lines of ‘that’s what you get for being pretty.’”
It wasn’t just accommodation services that weren’t dealing with allegations, “there are students that say they’ve made formal complaints and they say the university hasn’t followed up on it.”
The strikes don’t just seek rebates on this term’s rent. Zac said, “we’ve asked for money back on last term’s rent as well because we shouldn’t have been there. It was unsafe for us to go, and they told us we were going to have face to face teaching, and no one has had face to face teaching.”
With mass mobilisation in halls being more straightforward, Oison wanted to see concessions made for second and third year students who were in private housing, “rent striking in those scenarios is obviously a lot more difficult, so we want the university to offer them some real support financially.”
With the trust in accommodation services severely damaged, Zac said strikers “want a student renters union to hold onto the power that we’ve got at the moment because the Student Union isn’t really good at representing us.”
Students’ demands, like the reasons for striking, go beyond rent. They want real change, with Zac saying the current situation is “a culmination of 10 years of austerity and underfunding the higher education sector.”
“[Universities] rushed us back here because the sooner we came back, they would know that our money was secure and they’d be getting it,” said Oison. He also called for the tuition fees to be scrapped, saying monetising education had sacrificed student welfare, “it’s more about keeping the economy ticking over, which has been the story of the pandemic.”
Some universities have begun to offer waivers or rebates. Georgia said UAL had offered a seven-week waiver from the beginning of lockdown. But there are some hoops to jump through, where “anyone who’s taken part in the rent strike can’t get the waiver.” Despite many UAL students needing to collect things like sketchbooks, or sewing machines, “even if you came up for one day to come and get things, you now can’t get the waiver.” Georgia also said that for those at UAL on strike, the university was charging late payment fees that went up for each day that rent wasn’t paid.
At Swansea, Oison said “[the university] has agreed to refund students who aren’t at halls at the moment for the period from the 5th of January to the 15th of February. Obviously, that’s not enough.”
Zac said strikers in Sheffield had had very little contact with the university over the issue, and although they agreed some money should be reimbursed, he still thought “they [were] trying to take the side of landlords over students.”
For private accommodation, Zac said “the only [company] that’s offered anything has been Unite, they’ve offered 50% back on the time when you’re not in your room. You can have that back as credit rather than actual money.” But other companies had allegedly made threats and were “trying to scare us into paying.”
For other issues raised by strikers, such as sexual assault, Zac said “[the university] basically came short of saying students were lying.”
With student anger and frustration so apparent, it’s unlikely that the issues they raise will be resolved quickly. Strikers want fundamental change to how universities treat their students and hope the withholding of finances will bounce institutions into action.
Capturing the feelings of thousands of students across the country, Georgia said “we feel like we’ve been completely abandoned.” Whether the government and universities respond to the issues raised by students remains to be seen. But what’s clear from the conversations here is that the failings of universities and government will have a lasting imprint in the minds of students. Thousands of young people have been radicalised, all of whom won’t forget how they’ve been treated when it comes to the next election.
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