For thousands of students, this academic year has not been what they expected when they moved away to university. Despite being encouraged onto campus with the promise of a ‘blended’ university experience, the reality of the situation has been one of reduced facilities and the rapid spread of Covid-19 throughout student populations.
As part of the second wave of the pandemic, many students have found themselves trapped in isolation in their student halls. They are often left unable to access washing facilities, relying on expensive, low quality food parcels provided by the university, and wondering whether they will be able to see their families this christmas.
For those that are not in isolation, many remain trapped in rental contracts for student accommodation, despite their courses being largely online. There is, rightly, a mood among students that they could do their courses from home both more easily and more safely, and without spending hundreds of pounds every month on rent. But many students feel they have been sold a lie by universities, desperate to keep on treating students as a cash cow, raking in tens of millions of pounds in profits from fees and rent payments.
Out of this growing anger the Rent Strike campaign has undergone a major growth in support., student groups have begun to form, demanding reductions in rent and for the right to opt out of their accommodation, without financial punishment. Rent strikes have been organised at Manchesterand Bristol universities, with groups at other campuses preparing to follow suit. As of now, the students are demanding 40% and 30% rent reductions respectively for the remainder of this academic year. Hundreds in these groups have messaged to say they have cancelled their standing order on rent payment. At Bristol alone, more than £1 million has already been withheld!
This action could end up going a long way to countering the line put forward by the press, that the Covid spikes in halls are simply the fault of students themselves. Many of those coming to university this year were deliberately sold and fed a huge pack of lies, with contradictory and confused messaging that has fed into a feeling of despondency among a certain layer of students. Through struggle, we can undermine this and show for certain that we all do care about our health and safety!
The action we need
Many of the students leading this new wave of rent strikes have come to university with the experience of the A-levels protests over summer, as well as the long-running climate strikes. tudents have shown a real understanding that if we fight against any forms of oppression and exploitation, then we can win. Already, groups are using WhatsApp to organise. Rent Strike groups have been doing co-ordinated sessions dedicated to bombarding university admin with calls to pile on the pressure. And by raising issues of tuition fees – for instance how much students are still being forced to pay – more and more are questioning why it is that education is not fundamentally run in our interests.
There is some debate around whether to demand refunds of fees, or for them to be cancelled altogether. Rent Strike groups across the country will only be able to decide these questions democratically. Frequent open strike planning meetings should be organised to decide what kind of strategy we need to win, with the regular election of strike planning committees to oversee negotiations where they don’t exist. By doing that, we would be able to link up rent strike groups and have national conferences of resistance, raising the possibility of national strike days that would put our voices on the agenda for definite and make our demands heard.
We will also need to recognise that, by building our movements on this basis, we will have to be prepared to fight this battle to the end. The halls rip-off had been a thing long before Covid appeared, and will continue to be so if we don’t take urgent steps to maintain our struggle. Considering universities have already given threats of ‘serious consequences’ for strikers who don’t pay up, we will need to prepare for direct action to prevent evictions from taking place, potentially by physically blocking bailiffs from entering halls of accommodation. We will have to demand that Student Unions take up our demands and put them forward clearly to management. If they fail to represent us, we should run our own candidates who will.
At the heart of the issue is the process of marketisation that has taken place in Higher Education for a number of years. With public funding to universities cut over previous decades, they have begun to rely on the fee and rent payments of students for financial gain. This is an issue that affects both students and university staff. The struggle being waged by staff in the UCU unon against redundancies and casualisation is one such example of this. By aligning our movement with staff, we can cut across the arguments from some universities (such as Sussex) which have tried to pit students and workers against each other by claiming that they will have to cut further jobs if students withhold rent.
Student Socialist Alternative is organising a national day of action on the 12th November as a step toward building a national movement around student rents. The rent strikes that have developed so far are a positive step forward, and should be built further around the country. Our movement must stand against any evictions threatened against students who withhold their payments and call for universities to pledge no evictions for striking students. We call for rent to be completely cancelled for this term, followed by a 50% cut in the spring.
We also need to kick the market out of higher education to ensure that our universities put the health and the needs of students and staff before profit. This means fighting for a fully publicly owned, socialist education system, with free education and a real living maintenance grant – not a loan. Vice Chancellors, many of whom live as millionaires while students and staff bear the brunt of the crisis, should have their pay slashed to the level of a standard university workers’ salary, with the remaining money used to fund educational and mental health support. Student accommodation should be democratically run by staff and students to ensure adequate health and safety measures, and the right for students to be able to leave if they want to, with adequate testing.