UK students mobilising the biggest rent strike in four decades

Abby Ashley-Gardner reports on the strikes students are carrying out across the country against paying full rent due to the pandemic.

Abby Ashley-Gardner
19th December 2020
Students from at least 20 UK university campuses plan to strike by withholding rent in the upcoming spring term. They demand that their universities cut the cost of halls that many students cannot live in due to the pandemic.

The strike action – the biggest of its kind in over 40 years - comes as students become increasingly frustrated about accommodation lockdowns, a lack of face-to-face teaching and the prospect of paying for empty rooms. 

There are accusations of poor mental health support and transparency, with students claiming they were lured to campuses on false pretences that they would have a blended learning experience with some in-person teaching. 

Activists at both Oxford and Sussex universities signed up hundreds of students to take part in their strike action. Institutions including Cambridge, Edinburgh and Goldsmiths, University of London, are preparing strikes of their own. 

Last month, a successful mass rent strike by students at Manchester University saw cuts to hall's rent by 30% for this term. However, students behind the campaign are determined to force rent cuts for the remainder of the academic year. This determination has been increased by the government’s upcoming staggered return in which students will be encouraged to return over a five-week period to allow for testing. 

The movement in Manchester has been growing since hundreds of halls residents tore down fencing that was controversially erected around their campus in November.

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

Over 600 students in Manchester have pledged to withhold rent in January. Meanwhile, over 200 plan to strike in Sussex, and in Cambridge over 400 students are planning action as anger grows surrounding redundancies in some colleges. 

Rent Strike, the grassroots organisation helping to coordinate many of the strikes, has said that they are becoming tired of being treated as ‘cash cows’. Laura Hone, from Rent Strike Cambridge, told The Guardian: “These 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”, she added. 

A spokesperson for Newcastle University told The Courier: “No student was charged for their University accommodation until they arrived at University in Semester 1, and any student delaying their return until Semester 2 was not charged at all for this term. 

“Due to the change in Government guidance and the introduction of the Student Travel Window, we have also refunded the final two weeks of this semester for any student (...) who has left early for the winter break.”

With regards to Semester 2 rent payments and the staggered return in January, they added: “this week our Executive Board agreed up to two weeks rent refund for any student delaying their return.

“For any student who is delayed in their return to Newcastle for wellbeing reasons or due to restrictions, we are committed to only charging rent from the day they arrive.”

Featured Image: UoM Rent Strike on Instagram.

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