Students, Here’s How to Organise a Rent Strike
by Rosa Porter
1 October 2020
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, university management has effectively pursued a mass false advertising campaign to get students back on to campuses. It has done so in order to secure rents for landlords who make millions from student accommodation, and fee income for universities which have become completely dependent on it.
Students were promised a ‘blended learning’ experience involving a face-to-face teaching component, and a student experience that is ‘as good if not better’ than previous years. This was, quite simply, a con. On arrival at universities across the country, thousands of students have almost immediately been locked into their dilapidated and overpriced halls while almost all teaching is being conducted online, due to escalating Covid-19 outbreaks. Classrooms have not passed Covid-19 risk assessments, staff have rightly refused to come back on to campuses, and ‘blended learning’ has turned out to consist of the odd extra-curricular film screening.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of Millbank – the pinnacle of protest against the introduction of university tuition fees – this is the commodification of education that was so militantly opposed in the 2010 student movement coming home to roost.
University management and the government knew this would happen – in fact, in their drive to get students back to campuses, they encouraged this to happen – yet they are now blaming students’ social lives for their profit-driven mismanagement. In Scotland, universities have threatened to expel students for going to the pub; while health secretary Matt Hancock has threatened to detain students on campuses en masse over Christmas. The university has become, quite literally, the debtor’s prison.
Most students support strong public health measures to suppress Covid-19. They don’t support being conned into spending over £9k a year on fees alone just to be locked in their halls.
Despite Covid-19 restrictions and social distancing guidance, which could make it difficult to organise politically at this time, students are not in a fundamentally weak position. They have leverage to resist this untenable situation in the form of the rent they pay. Rent strikes have been historically successful, with examples ranging from the 1915 Glasgow rent strike to a more recent victory at UCL, where over 1,000 students forced rent-reductions and compensation payments. In fact, the current Covid-19 restrictions further strengthen students’ position insofar as universities can’t just evict people who refuse to pay since this may mean breaking government guidance (although the eviction ban is now lifted, the notice period landlords must give tenants has been extended, and general Covid-19 guidance says students should not travel home).
For students who believe that they have been treated unfairly, now is the time to strike. A rent strike sounds complex and difficult, but it can be quite simple to organise with some hard work.
How to organise a rent strike.
Stage one: getting started.
1. Find each other and talk to each other. Find other people in your halls and residences willing to discuss the possibility of a rent strike and the way in which Covid-19 restrictions are unfairly affecting students.
2. Put up posters in your halls and put flyers through doors to advertise a rent strike and call a meeting.
3. Organise a meeting to talk about the Covid-19 restrictions, rent and your experience at university this year.
4. Start a petition demanding the suspension of rent, articulating your other demands and threatening rent strikes if enough people sign up. Take it door-to-door around your halls, collect emails and phone numbers. Phone everyone! (This is also a great way to meet your fellow students during lockdown and alleviate the loneliness many will be experiencing in these times.)
5. Ensure commitment. At the meeting, ask attendees for conditional commitment that if a certain number of others commit to going on rent strike, they will too. This gives everyone the confidence that you will have strength in numbers.
6. Decide on your demands. Once you have commitment from a sufficient number of students, discuss and decide what exactly you want to demand from your landlord, from the government, and from your university management. Demands could include:
Tuition fees reimbursed while Covid-19 restrictions are in place.
No rent while Covid-19 restrictions are in place.
Cops off campus: no enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions by police or security guards.
The end of victimisation, blaming and scapegoating of students for Covid-19 infections and outbreaks.
An unconditional commitment to allowing students to go home for Christmas.
7. Form a rent strike committee so that no one individual contacts the university. This is very important. It keeps everyone safe from repercussions. Sign all correspondence with university management: “The rent strike committee of XXXX”.
8. Contact your university management. Once you have a commitment that enough people will stop paying rent immediately (or if people pay in advance for the whole term, a commitment to not paying next term and a demand that prepaid rent is returned), contact your university management, tell them what you intend to do and inform them of your demands.
Stage two: building strength.
1. Hold regular meetings to keep everyone’s spirits up and keep everyone together, informed and involved.
2. Make contact with other university groups who are also conducting rent strikes (in the UK and around the world) for advice and solidarity.
3. Organise regular protests in and around halls and campus to inform other students of what you are doing and encourage them to join in.
4. Spread your message out. Contribute to student newspapers, create your own blog, post on social media. Put up posters, stickers, graffiti. Write about what you are doing everywhere.
5. Form an eviction resistance committee which will organise to prevent any threat of eviction in the halls, including the non-violent blockading of residences if necessary. It will almost certainly not come to this, as an eviction would probably break government guidance – but it will show your intent and prevent them from trying. Advertise widely that you have organised an eviction resistance committee and have planned a defence should this threat materialise.
6. Build a common identity. Cook collective meals together, write leaflets, art, stickers and posters together – spread propaganda everywhere.
Stage three: what university management will do, and how to respond.
1. Good cop. They may be nice to you at first. They may tell you that they value students standing up for themselves, and indeed, that your university, in particular, prides itself on producing independent thinkers (the vice-chancellor himself was partial to a protest in his younger days, they may say), and they will look into it for you (because they really care about you). But, for them to do that, they will add, you must call off the threat of rent strikes, protests and general trouble-making around university immediately! Advice: Ignore this.
2. Bad cop. If the above does not work, the university will attempt to victimise students to weaken resolve. They may try to identify and pick off students and threaten them with disciplinary measures to weaken the rent strike. (It is also worth remembering that some students will be less able to participate, for example, due to visa concerns, so be mindful of this and ensure people participate in any way they can.) Advice: Adopt an ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ approach and escalate your protests and activities if they attempt to do this. Do not let them divide you.
3. Eviction. They may threaten eviction. Advice: they almost certainly won’t be able to evict you, because it is currently against government guidance. However, do form an eviction resistance committee and tell the management that you have done so. They do not want the bad publicity of people seeing bailiffs throwing student possessions out of halls in the middle of a pandemic.
4. Threatening letters. They are very likely to send individuals threatening letters. Advice: When they do, publish these letters widely on social media, in student newspapers etc. Send replies from the rent strike committee (not from individuals) indicating that you will not be divided or intimidated. Seek condemnation of their intimidation tactics from other university groups. Speak to journalists about the threatening letters. Organise protests against intimidation. The greater the links you have already built with other campuses by this point, the stronger your position will be.
5. Your degree. They may threaten to withhold your degree if you do not pay your rent. Advice: Don’t be fooled. The government’s competition and markets authority (CMA) ruled that universities cannot withhold degrees for non-payment of non-tuition fee debt, and has ruled against universities which have tried to do so.
5. Good and bad students. They may try to separate you into legitimate and illegitimate students/protestors, urging some of you to condemn the actions of others in divide and conquer tactics. Advice: Do not engage with this. Do not condemn any other students on behalf of the university, no matter what they do.
Stage four: victory.
Victory is never guaranteed. It depends on how strong the rent strike movement becomes and what the university management and government response to it is. However, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of winning.
1. The faster the rent strike movement can be generalised, the higher your chances of success. Get as many people as possible involved as quickly as you can.
2. In response to management escalation (threats, eviction notices, victimisations) the response should always be student escalation (protests, occupations, blockades).
3. If possible, hold national demonstrations to widen your cause.
4. Form a collective decision-making body and process to decide if and when you feel your demands have been met. It is essential that decision-making is collective!
5. Don’t be intimidated. Maintaining solidarity amongst yourselves is key.
By taking these basic guidelines and making them your own (adding to them or amending them depending on your particular situation), by remaining determined and courageous, and by having confidence in the power of solidarity, you can win – history has shown this time and time again.
You can find further advice on organising rent strikes at www.rent-strike.org.
Rosa Porter – not her real name – is a housing activist who has been involved in successful rent strike campaigns. She was part of the 2010 student movement.