“They’ve put their bottom line ahead of our welfare”: inside the UK’s student rent strikes

Expecting a fresh start, young people across the country are instead stuck indoors, paying for accommodation they can't use. So they've taken matters into their own hands. Gary Ryan reports

It’s not been a university experience that would be advertised in any undergraduate prospectus.

They may have expected boundless learning, to discover new interests and chase new dreams, but when students were brought back to campus in September, many saw their classes move online within a matter of weeks, leaving them effectively trapped in their cramped flats. Forced to self-isolate after their migration to the city helped fuel a second-wave of coronavirus, dejected freshers in Manchester hung posters from their halls comparing the situation to prison.

Now, government advice means that students are stuck back at their parental homes – yet many are still expected to pay rent for accommodation they can’t access. It’s little wonder the majority feel exploited for profit, locked-down and stitched-up.

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Anger has turned to activism, with students at over 50 universities withholding their rents to make their voices heard, as they call for rent reductions, greater flexibility around quitting contracts and increased mental health support for students.

You might question why students would choose to go to university in the midst of a pandemic. Many claim it was marketed to them as a substantially rosier prospect to what the reality ended up being.

Saranya Thambirajah, a 19-year-old in her first year at Bristol University, is one of thousands of students demanding action. “We feel it’s unfair that we’re not getting the full university experience but still paying full fees,” she tells NME. “We were told we’d have a relatively normal university experience, but the promise of blended learning – a mixture of face-to-face and online teaching – quickly shifted online.”

“We’re not delusional,” she continues. “We know it can’t be completely normal, but we’re stuck at our parents’ houses watching Zoom videos, struggling through our lectures and being told to produce the same quality of work – all while still paying £9,000 in tuition fees plus rent. If we knew it would be like this, most students would have deferred a year.”

The average weekly rent for student accommodation is £104.50. Saranya pays £145 per week for a room in a five-bedroom student flat – one she cannot use at the moment. Rather than the bacchanal you might traditionally associate with students, her freshers’ year has involved being cooped up in a tiny room without natural daylight, and not meeting anybody outside those four walls. “It’s been difficult and overwhelming,” she says. “In a normal year, it’s easy to make friends, but now it’s hard to meet anyone outside your accommodation. My coursemates are just icons on a computer screen. I have no contact with them.”

The Rent Strike UK movement, which sees fed-up students withhold their rent until their demands are met, is chalking up wins, as universities are waiving rent or offering reductions for the lockdown period. Three days after we speak to Saranya, Bristol bows to the pressure of the 1,400 strikers by offering a rent rebate during the period 1 February – 26 March for those students who have not returned, and a 30 per cent cut for those remaining in halls. It’s too little too late, say the group, who will be withholding their rent until the full rebate is available to all students.

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The rent strike is about more than just paying for things they cannot use  – it’s also about the failures of universities to give students sufficient support since the beginning of the year. At Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), 20-year-old second-year student Jonathan Moore says was left with “no alternative” other than to organise a rent strike. He claims there’s little face-to-face learning and it’s “near-impossible” to get out of contracts without incurring a termination fee.

“I’ve got ADHD and the delivery of teaching is very different to what I’m used to,” he says, “and certainly much harder than it would be in normal times. GCSEs and A-Level exams have been cancelled, but people in higher education are still meant to produce the same quality of work.”

Like 57 per cent of students who’ve had to self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms (according to findings by the National Union of Students), he claims he did not receive adequate support from his university: “When we’ve had to isolate, the care packages have been a few nut bars. In all honesty, university feels like a con at this point.”

This week, QMUL met strikers’ first request – a 30 per cent discount off residential fees for the remainder of the year – but they will remain rent-striking until their full demands (including a full rent rebate for the lockdown period and no-penalty early tenancy releases) are fulfilled.

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Students on rent strike wave from the window of Manchester accommodation tower block. CREDIT: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Rent strikers at the University of Manchester hit the headlines last year after a dozen students occupied the Owen’s Park Tower halls of residence – the 200-foot focal point of the city’s student Fallowfield area – and won a 30 per cent reduction on their first term’s rent. Manchester had borne the brunt of the student coronavirus influx; as 70,000-plus students swarmed into the city, Fallowfield became the Number One COVID-19 hotspot in the UK. Frightened, ill and away from their support network at home, students felt scapegoated for the rise in the city’s tougher restrictions.

Angered at paying the same rent as previous year’s students while having less access to facilities on campus, they quickly organised. Further high-profile and widely-reported incidents spurred them into action. They were shaken by a suicide on campus (the 19-year-old’s bereaved father later warned that if young people are locked down “with little suppport then you should expect them to suffer severe anxiety”) and tensions erupted when a black student was held up against a wall by security guards and told he resembled a drug dealer.

In addition to this, students awoke one day to find a fence had been erected around their halls, which the University of Manchester described as a response to student-raised security fears. One resident told the BBC: “It makes it feel like we’re in a prison.” By that evening, students had torn it down.

As universities generate £1.9bn from residential operations, including hall rents (according to figures for last year), they feel like they’re being treated as cash cows; casualties of the marketisation of higher education.

“It makes you feel the whole university experience has been a failure” – first-year student Lisa*

Ben McGowan, a 19-year-old  first year University of Manchester student and one of the architects of Rent Strike UK movement, says: “The university were the ones pushing for us to return because they wanted our rent and tuition fees – to the extent that universities were chartering flights to make sure they could get international students in, because they rely on their fees. They were shoving as many students in as possible, then putting the blame on students when the inevitable [COVID-19] spike happened. All through this, we felt they’ve put their bottom line ahead of the welfare and needs of students.”

The University of Manchester have conceded to a full rent rebate for those not on campus, rent strikers are calling for a 30 per cent rent reduction for all students – returned or not – for the rest of the semester, reduced to 20 per cent when facilities re-open in line with the government COVID-19 regulations.

Contacted by NME about the issues raised in this article, a University of Manchester spokesperson responded: “The University of Manchester has announced that students living in university accommodation who have not returned to that accommodation since the national lockdown announcement on 5 January [2021] will not pay any rent until the end of the current restrictions, or the date that they return to their accommodation in Manchester.”

Students at Manchester University torn down fencing put around its halls of residence. (Picture: Twitter)

While those at university-run halls are finding success, residents of privately-run purpose-built accommodation, which accounts for a quarter of students, have not been as fortunate. The biggest provider, Unite, recently offered tenants a 50 per cent discount between January 18 and February 14 if coronavirus restrictions prevented them from returning to their studies. Even so, students are baulking at the prospect of paying even 50 per cent – a hefty amount of money when they can no longer rely on now-non-existent jobs like bar work to supplement their maintenance loan – for rooms they cannot use.

First-year student Lisa*, 19, moved into Unite accommodation recommended by the University of Bath, in September, before returning to her parents’ home in Birmingham at the end of November. She is rent-striking and demanding a 100 per cent rebate for the lockdown period, but it is not without risk – she’s locked into a contract that charges three per cent interest for each day she’s in arrears after a failed payment, which is not an uncommon situation. In order to end her contract, she must find a replacement tenant – nigh-on impossible in a pandemic.

“It’s felt like a huge trap,” she says. “We’re nothing but profit in their eyes. We’re paying £2,000 – £3,000 for accommodation we haven’t stayed in for months. It’s heartbreaking. Some people have moved home and accepted they are going to have to pay off the entire year’s rent as required in the tenancy agreement, sitting in their teenage bedrooms, knowing that every single penny of their maintenance loan is going towards accommodation they’re not living in anymore. It makes you feel like the whole university experience has been a failure.”

It’s a game of roulette as to which flatmates freshers are placed with; in a pandemic, the stakes are raised. But what happens when you end up bullied by those you’re forced to isolate 24/7 with?

“It’s felt like an emotional and financial sinkhole you can’t get out of” – Criminology and Psychology student Nick*

That was the unenviable reality for Nick*, a fresher studying Criminology and Psychology at Liverpool University, who is paying £170 per week for Unite accommodation. On his second night there, relations with his flatmates irrevocably deteriorated when he refused to take cocaine and ketamine with them. He awoke to find himself ostracised and his possessions smashed in the living room. He’d lie in his bed at night listening to his flatmates criticising him in the kitchen. On his fourth day at university, he tested positive for COVID, coughing and vomiting into the early hours. His flatmates refused to quarantine. Confined to his room and with no support from his accommodation provider, his worried parents insisted he return home to London.

“I was badly bullied at school and it took me a while to build up my confidence – only for it to be knocked again,” he says. He assumed he’d make like-minded friends by joining the various athletics societies – an option closed off because of COVID. Similarly to Lisa, he’s risking a £30 penalty for every day he withholds his rent. “I had a terrible university experience, and was only there for two weeks. I’m paying £6,500 for a bed I’ve slept in for a maximum of 14 nights. University is supposed to be about freedom, but because of COVID, you have no way of getting out of that flat.

“It’s felt like an emotional and financial sinkhole you can’t get out of. You’re told by the university that this year will be normal, you’ll meet loads of new people, and as soon as the shit hits the fan, they turn their back on you.”

Manchester Met Uni
Signs made by students are displayed in a window of their locked down accommodation building CREDIT: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

James*, studying Fashion at De Montfort University in Leicester, only spent five weeks in his Unite accommodation before returning to his parents’ in Cardiff due to poor mental health. The 19-year-old says: “It’s not morally right that I’m spending over £2,000 for a time when I’m not going to be there.” His course was marketed as being mainly practical, but due to COVID restrictions, he’s spent only five days in the studio.

“The course was wrapped up as being something perfect yet it’s not turned out to be the university experience anybody would have hoped for,” he says.

James is autistic and was advised by his mental health worker to return to the safe space of his family home in November: “Because I had suffered through the first lockdown, I was told not to go through it again on my own, I need to be at home in familiar surroundings. During the first lockdown, my mental health dipped. A routine for someone with autism is very hard to get out of, so when the lockdown hit, I struggled with change and my depression hit hard. It was very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

He adds: “I just feel university accommodation providers have no mercy or humanity.”

Asked if it is unfair for students to be expected to pay 50 per cent of accommodation costs for rooms they are being advised to stay away from on public health grounds, amid accusations of a lack of support for self- isolating students, a Unite Students spokesperson said: “Our focus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been on playing our part to provide support for students. During this pandemic, we have announced rental discounts to students totalling £108million, which is a very substantial package by any terms.

“I feel university accommodation providers have no mercy or humanity” – Fashion student James*

“Like any private landlord, contracts for this academic year were signed against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe this latest discount reflects a position that is both appropriate and deliverable.

“Students face a challenging and disrupting time following the Government’s decision to return to lockdown. We have a strong track record of supporting students who need help and we would urge anyone who is struggling financially to talk to us and also contact their university student finance team for any additional support which they may need.”

The rent strike seems like the tip of the iceberg. A petition calling for a cut in tuition fees from £9,500 to £3,000 has reached over 600,000 signatures, while individual campaigns such as Student Action for a Fair and Education Response (SAFER) have been established to push for fee reductions among students who feel that they’re being treated as consumers but without the same basic protections.

Ellen Fearon, NUS-USI president, recently said: “Governments have been dodging the problems facing student renters throughout the whole of this pandemic. We have consistently raised the fact that students are in a unique situation, being unable to claim Universal Credit and therefore unable to access housing support if they lose their income, but these calls have fallen on deaf ears.”

Yet one thing’s clear in the minds of the galvanised rent strikers: they’re going to use any means necessary to make universities listen.

*Names have been changed

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