Have Students Been Pushed Too Far? | The Story of Rent-Strikes in the Year of the Pandemic and Beyond

Have Students Been Pushed Too Far? | The Story of Rent-Strikes in the Year of the Pandemic and Beyond

The Pandemic has been particularly hard on younger generations. Despite being less vulnerable to the awful effects of COVID-19, it could be argued that young people have borne the brunt of the most wide-reaching effect of the disease – the restrictions – with their education diminished and lives profoundly affected by the Pandemic. Instead of socialising and enjoying university life, freshers found themselves barely leaving their room. Lectures were all online, and awkward breakout rooms became a new social norm. Even basic socialising is now difficult due to the breadth of regulation. 

This has generated a wave of discontent and a movement across over 45 universities. Rent-Strikes have become one of the most striking examples of student activism. Here, I’m going to explore what they are, what has driven students to them as a means of protest, how they’ve been received public, and how- if at all- successful they have been. 

What is a Rent Strike? 

A rent-strike is exactly what it says on the tin: a refusal to pay your Rent until specific demands are met. In this case, it’s a means of taking back control from university and its leech-like relationship with your wallet. In their COVID 19 Handbook, Rent-Strike has a pre-drafted set of demands that students can use for their own rent strike. 

  1. Cancellation of Rent at all halls, both university and private, for all students, for the remainder of the academic year 2019-2020. 
  2. Give students who are self-isolating in their halls the freedom to remain without the burden of Rent. 
  3. To offer all students a no-penalty early release clause from their tenancy contracts, for both this, and the next, academic years. 
  4. End all evictions for the duration of the crisis, not just a slow down on the eviction process. 
  5. That the university make no attempt to punish or reprimand the strikers either legally or academically. 

This isn’t the first time a rent strike has happened, even amongst uni-goers. In 2016, when over a thousand UCL students were on rent strike, they won over £1.5 million through various forms of compensation and Bursary. 

What guidance is there available for those who rent strike? 

The rent-strike website has produced a vast volume of guidance. They urge people to continually escalate their efforts and thereby draw the attention of the local press. Rent-Strike also suggests that striking groups research different corporations or organisations who sponsor the university and can therefore serve as targets to further the institution’s embarrassment. Students have taken guidance into their own hands, and we’ve seen stunts such as uni students occupying a tower in Manchester, students pushing back against uni restrictions by tearing down fences in… Manchester, and students witholding rent and marching in places all across the country (including Manchester. Must be something in the water or something.) The Pandemic has resulted in rent-strikes being delayed, but the organisation has tried to champion online organising, as many students are still being charged Rent despite being either forced to stay at uni or legally unable to occupy their accommodation due to the lockdown.  

As I scrolled through their glaringly purple website, what struck me was the distinctive Marxist undertone of much of their guidance. Let’s take one passage: 

Just as our debt and labour produce the Rent demanded of us, we reproduce the demand for Rent every time we willingly pay it. Our collective refusal to submit to exploitation amounts not only to grit in the gears of the university’s financial machinery, but a mechanism with which to build the collective power we need if we are serious about escaping our current situation.

The characterisation of uni’s as machines reflect the radical intent at the beating heart of rent strikes. For too long students have been ignored, milked for cash and told that university would set them up for life. Instead, young people are disproportionately represented in precarious, low paid work. A rent-strike is a revolution, a rejection of the status quo. It is, to employ a phrase that’s been bandied about a lot over the last few years, taking back control. 

The ‘Financial Machinery’

David Cameron had a reputation as a great, modernising Tory. Higher education was not immune to the wide-reaching reforms of this Conservative government. Before the Conservatives ascended to government, university funding was primarily drawn from government subsidy.  In 2010, the government wanted to create more competition between institutions, citing the age-old conservative belief that the benefits of competition would trickle down to consumers (in this case, students). 

However, the shift to a system predicated on loans has left a multi-billion pound black hole at the heart of the governments’ books as 80% of graduates fail to pay off their loans. The nine thousand pounds was intended as a maximum amount as all degrees are not worth the same. Depending on your course and where you attend your degree might be worth less than if you did the same course at another institution. But with all universities adopting the maximum limit, the reforms have failed in their basic premise of generating competition. The governing assumption of these reforms- that universities would differentiate their price- has been proven to be deeply flawed.  Now universities splash out on new buildings, generous salaries for celebrity vice-chancellors, and PR rather than on students. Students are locked in shoddy accommodation and charged Rent on top of their already accumulated debt. 

This has been made worse by the Pandemic. Research funding has falling 12.8 per cent since 2010 and staff pay reduced in real terms since 2009. Meanwhile the number of Chinese students (a big part of a key source of funding for UK unis – international students) has risen by over 60% since 2012. Of course, one of the most distinctive consequences of the Pandemic has been border closure. Although, the much-feared collapse in international student numbers has not come so far, questions must be raised about the long-term tenability of this model. There are also questions as to what impact Britain’s increasing frostiness in their relationship with China will have. This rackety-car of a model is risking running out of the fuel that keeps it going. 

How Have Universities Responded? 

According to the BBC, Universities are essentially abdicating responsibility, arguing much of the control of student accommodations is vested in the private sector. 

How Successful Have Rent Strikes Been So Far? 

Rent Strikes have had some notable success. In Manchester, for example, they were offered a 30% rent reduction for the first half of the year. Bristol won a day rebate at Christmas equivalent to a £3.2 million payout to students.

Are Rent Strikes Legal? 

According to the London student co-op, this is an area where there is some nuance within the law. Obviously, rent strikes are technically illegal. They violate the contract between Landlord and tenant. However, courts do distinguish between regular violations and violations when trying to communicate your demands to a landlord. Where you get your protection, is from strength in numbers. Rent strikes to be a mass movement if they are to be effective. 

Universities do have the right to evict you, but to do so would illicit swathes of negative media coverage. For a university, in this financialised age, PR is everything. Rent-strikes realise that their reliance on PR is the Achilles heel of the university system. 

You Are Protected From Being Kicked Off Your Course By The Office Of Fair Trade’s Ruling: 

“We consider that terms that allow the university to withhold graduation or progression, or otherwise exclude a student from tuition for non-payment of ancillary services (such as accommodation or childcare), in a blanket fashion and regardless of the circumstances, are potentially unfair, and the use of such terms and practices may amount to unfair commercial practices.”

Office of Fair Trade

Is There Any Wider, Political Support For Rent Strikes? 

Broadly, the answer is no. Politicians such as John Mcdonell have voiced his support for the movement, but support has not been forthcoming beyond some left-wing MPs. The youth wing of the Labour party is attempting to incorporate some of the movement’s demands into party policy. Regardless, the Rent-Strike movement is an extra-parliamentary one, mobilising to change the static, financialised institutions that make up the modern, British state. 

What About Wider Support For The Movement Within Society? 

The Rent-Strike movement comes at a time of political awakening for young people. A poll by the NUS found that 50% of UK students had become more political during the Pandemic, and around 2/3 didn’t think the government were acting in their best interests. 

Even 46% of surveyed conservative voters agreed that students needed some form of rent rebate in light of the Pandemic if unable to access their accommodation.

Where you live is all the more critical, now learning is primarily online. The Office for Students found that 71% of students are reported as saying they lack access to appropriate silent study space. In a damning indictment of University online provision, 56% of students reported not being able to access appropriate online materials. 

There is a problem at the heart of our university system, undoubtedly exposed by the Pandemic. Students are getting tired of being treated as cash cows, laden with debt and trapped in sub-par accommodation. A wave is rising, a movement which could prove successful in undermining this financialised behemoth.  

For more news on student housing and rent-strikes see our article on The Student Housing Company.

Written by Ruairidh Maclean | Illustrated by Sanni Pyhänniska

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