Yesterday, the University of Manchester joined the growing list of UK universities whose students are going on rent strike during the coronavirus pandemic.
UoM Rent Strike, the group that announced the strike yesterday morning, is demanding a rent reduction of at least 40% for the rest of the academic year and no-penalty contract releases for the duration of this and next academic year. Their demands also include better welfare provision for students in halls, including food and laundry services for those self-isolating.
The Manchester strike comes hot on the heels of one called by students in Bristol last week.
One of the Bristol strikers is Connor Nicol, 19, a first-year English undergraduate. Just a week after he moved into his accommodation, reports emerged of a coronavirus outbreak in student halls nearby. Soon after, the quarantined students began sharing horror stories: undelivered food parcels, inadequate security measures, and non-existent mental health support.
By this point, Nicol had already caught wind of the student-led campaign group Bristol Cut the Rent via the student Labour Society. The news of the lockdown and its fallout spurred him to join the group the following day. By Wednesday, he was mobilising his peers to strike.
The group’s momentum has snowballed. They hit their initial target of 150 strikers within a day, and within five days had over 800 students signed up to strike. Meanwhile in Manchester, in the week since the campaign launched, over 200 students have committed to withholding rent.
Key to both groups’ success is social media: neat infographics that clearly communicate their demands, regular milestone-markers, andsignal-boosting from allies. Sophie*, an 18-year-old strike organiser in Manchester, told Novara Media that while their group has “worked hard” on establishing a presence on social media, it helped that they had a ready audience. “We got a lot of social media followers quite quickly because there was a feeling among the students that the university is not treating us right.”
The strike organisers are predominantly freshers with little experience of activism beyond the Black Lives Matter protests and the odd Labour party leafleting session. In the absence of substantial institutional knowledge, the student groups have leaned heavily on a network of tenants’ unions, housing charities and students’ unions – which, in line with National Union of Students policy, are supportive of the strikes. Rent Strike, a network of university-based Cut the Rent groups, held an online training session for students across the country earlier this term, while Acorn organisers have been advising students in Bristol on their strategy.
Pete Beckwith, head organiser at Bristol Acorn, says that the students are in a uniquely strong position to strike. Unlike tenants in the community, university students mostly share a landlord, whom it’s therefore easier to target. Then there’s the naturally social environment of the university, which has been further networked by the pandemic. “We’re living in a Covid-19 world where everyone seems to be in a WhatsApp group. Information gets out really, really fast.”
Bristol Cut the Rent is one of at least nineteen chapters of Rent Strike; the Manchester group, while not formally affiliated with the network, has taken heavy inspiration from it, from recycling its infographics to mimicking its colour scheme. Both, however, have learned much from the student movement that Rent Strike convenes. Though too young to remember Occupy, many of the students who spoke to Novara Media vividly recall the UCL student rent strike of 2016-17, which won £1.5m in concessions from the universities. “Doing your research really gets your confidence up,” says Sophie. “You realise how much power we have when we join together in protest.”
Then there is the spate of more recent strikes that broke out at the start of the pandemic. In March, 130 Bristol students held a successful strike after realising coronavirus would affect their ability to pay rent; in April, students at Lancaster University were offered rent reductions after 500 went on strike. Students at the universities of Edinburgh and Warwick have also run rent strike campaigns.
hey! come to uni it’ll be fun! eat out to help out! Book ur accom now! Oh no 10pm curfew, no household mixing, massive fines and threats of kicking u out of uni if u break rules:(oh well at least half ur learning will be on campus! Nvm all online now x love u give us 9k pls
Among the primary concerns encountered by the organisers in Bristol and Manchester is fear of eviction from halls, or suspension from the university. The Bristol students’ first demand is no retaliation against strikers. However, both they and their Manchester counterparts doubt they will face serious consequences for the strike action.
The reason for this is that they believe their universities, both of which are members of the prestigious Russell Group, fear reputational damage more than unpaid rent. “The uni is very unlikely to take any legal action against us as it would be a PR nightmare,” wrote the Manchester group in their Instagram post announcing the strike, while the Bristol students’ strike FAQs state: “The potential backlash that the university would receive if they took possession proceedings against a large group of their own students (in the middle of a global pandemic!!) makes it very unlikely they would take [retaliatory] action.” Nicol notes that none of the Bristol students who participated in last term’s rent strike were reprimanded.
Yet with rent due on Friday in Manchester and on Saturday in Bristol, the students’ fate still hangs in the balance. “The university isn’t taking us seriously yet,” says Sophie, “because right now, it’s just a threat. We’ll see what happens when people actually start withholding rent.”
Whatever transpires this weekend, Beckwith is more focused on what comes next. “What are these students going to build towards after their rent strike? If it were me, I’d be demanding a recognition agreement from the university, including collective bargaining for students in halls.”
Beckwith also hopes that the students’ politicisation will endure. “There’s a quarter of a million people facing eviction in the next six months – in Bristol ACORN alone, we’ve five impending eviction cases. That’s my concern: students are getting radicalised now, but it’s essential they take that radicalism to their landlords once they’ve graduated.”
Solidarity with Bristol Uni students calling for a rent strike after being locked down in halls 👊 https://t.co/X34isyjz5F
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said:
We fully acknowledge how stressful and challenging it is for students living in university accommodation having to self-isolate.
We thank them for following government advice to keep themselves and the wider community safe and are doing everything possible to support them. This includes providing cleaning supplies, laundry services and free food boxes with fresh goods which we understand some other universities are charging students for.
Security and support staff within residences are essential to remind students of the need to behave in a responsible and lawful manner.
Self-isolating students have full access to wellbeing and mental health support services, and our blended learning provision has been created to ensure they can still continue with their studies online.
Students who aren’t having to self-isolate are still able to attend face-to-face learning and move around freely within Government guidelines.
The health and safety of our students is a top priority, and our Residential Life teams are available 24/7 to offer help and advice. Regular support and contact with students will ensure everyone is kept up-to-date and can ask any questions.
We welcome further discussions with representatives from Cut the Rent and Bristol Students’ Union, but this is an issue that is affecting all universities at the moment and our actions are guided by Public Health England and the authorities to limit the spread of coronavirus.”
A spokesperson for the University of Manchester said:
Our students – subject to their course requirements – have an informed choice as to whether to study in person in Manchester or remotely. The UK government advice for Greater Manchester is that students are strongly encouraged to remain in their current accommodation and not return to their family home or other residential accommodation. If in exceptional circumstances students wish to return home for a period and no longer require their university accommodation, we will work with them to make sure they can safely leave the campus. Details of how to do this were emailed to all halls residents on 9 October 2020.
We have put in place a comprehensive support package for all students who are self-isolating, which includes a partnership with a major food retailer, delivery of parcels, wellbeing support, and assistance with practical matters such as arranging for laundry and prescription medicines. All students have been sent this information which includes clear guidance on the circumstances under which they are able to leave their accommodation whilst self-isolating. We continue to provide support for all students in our halls of residence, and students can contact their local ResLife team for help and advice, at any time.
*Not her real name.
Rivkah Brown is a writer and the editor of Vashti.