I Feel Like I’m Penalised For Being Poor: Why I’m On Rent Strike

In 2008 we bailed out the banks. We now face the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with record youth unemployment. Who will bail out young people? R29 and Vice are joining the National Union of Students to call for all students to be offered rent rebates and asking the government to bring back maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds. 
Students at universities across the UK are yet another sector of society which has been through hell as the country grapples with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many have been forced to isolate in their student accommodation and are finding themselves paying thousands of pounds for both education and accommodation which they feel is not the high standard they signed up for.
Some students are also struggling to cover costs because the jobs they would normally do to support their studies, in the hospitality and retail sectors, don't currently exist because these industries are closed during lockdown.
Frustration at the limitations of their university experience has wrought havoc on students' mental health, with many reporting a rapid deterioration in their mental state due to the lack of support they have received from both university faculties and the government.
We hear from 19-year-old Meg Day, a first year student at University College London (UCL). She is currently on rent strike and has been struggling with her mental health since the start of term due to the worry of rent arrears and growing debt.
"When I started university in September 2020, I was so excited. I'm studying politics, sociology and east European studies with a year abroad. But in my second week in London, after leaving my Ipswich family home for the first time in my life, I was put on a lockdown with over 100 people in my university accommodation at International Hall in Bloomsbury because someone had tonsillitis symptoms.
The cost of living at university is expensive. The price of my accommodation at International Hall included a single room, catered food and a shared bathroom for £253.13 per week. I also qualified for the low income bursary which equates to £2,500 (the maximum amount) from UCL and the full maintenance loan provided by Student Finance and the government, which equates to a maximum of £12,010 spread across each term.
I have had six different part-time jobs in my life and at the age of 19, I've never not relied on them. They were mainly in hospitality or customer service, which I can't rely on right now because of the pandemic.
This has made it particularly difficult at university. During the first lockdown, I couldn't access any food despite paying for it because my catered halls didn't meet my vegan requirements. I was lonely and scared because I had no idea how long we would be in and out of lockdowns for. We were put in two whole-floor lockdowns in just one month. It was particularly hard because I could see that [other] people from halls didn't have such draconian laws and were able to go out in what was supposed to be the best time of our first year experience.
Photo courtesy of Meg Day.
One of the dinners Meg was given. None of it was vegan (bar the cauliflower) so she couldn't eat it all.
I couldn't focus on any of my lessons when I was locked up. I once left an online class because I couldn't stop myself from crying. It was a universal experience; I had a friend who dropped out completely because they couldn't deal with the way it was being managed.
As we didn't have access to any of the laundry services due to the lockdown, one of the resident advisors told us to 'Amazon Prime' some underwear for the weeks we were locked up. The university did provide us with food but none of it was vegan, kosher or halal. Meanwhile, over at UCL, Just Eat and Uber Eats vouchers were provided for isolating students. I ended up using Deliveroo a few times, even though I couldn't afford to. I was having to pay for food that was supposed to be included in my rent.
Coming from a low income, single parent family, I've always had to be more cautious about money than a lot of my peers who come from wealthier families.
The University of London (UOL), which is in charge of the halls I'm living in, doesn't take family circumstances into consideration. Not everyone can afford to pay for extra food while they're already paying for on-campus catering and not everyone can pay for a room (even at a reduced rate) that they're legally not allowed to get into. I'm in Ipswich now and I can't get back to my halls in London, yet I'm still paying for it.
By October, my mental health was deteriorating so fast that I had to reach out to UCL wellbeing. My personal tutor, who was so supportive, was able to get me transferred out of UOL's International Hall to Handel Mansions (which is the same weekly cost as my previous accommodation) because I was suffering from lack of vitamin D, fresh air and food. I was so hungry, so sad and wasn't allowed to socialise with my bubble at the time.
UOL wasn't much help at all. To get a proper response, it took me posting their outrageous emails on Twitter. If it wasn't for my personal tutor, I don't think I would've received any support at all.

This has been the worst experience of my life. My mother is a key worker, which means I couldn't go home even if I wanted to.

The mental impact of such debt, the tuition fees and maintenance loans combined, is huge. Since maintenance grants were scrapped in 2015, people who are eligible for the highest maintenance loans – people like me, from the poorest backgrounds – are saddled with the most debt. It just weighs on you mentally. You feel like you're being penalised for being poor and, in London, it doesn't even cover your day-to-day living.
Photo courtesy of Meg Day.
If you don't have family money to fall back on, knowing that your loans barely cover your outgoings takes a huge mental toll at the best of times but, in a pandemic, when you're not getting what you pay for, it's unbearable.
That's why I chose to join the UOL rent strike with over 120 other students to protest against the way our university has mishandled its response to the coronavirus pandemic. They've ignored reported cases of sexual harassment involving their staff, don't provide for all dietary requirements during lockdown and are still charging students weekly (albeit slightly reduced) rent, even if they can't get back to London.
I may eventually have been moved to better halls but this has been the worst experience of my life. My family live an hour and a half away from my university and my mother is a key worker, which means I couldn't go home even if I wanted to.

I just feel that we have all been lied to. Universities and the government herded us into accommodation, knowing that we wouldn't be able to go to any classes.

I just feel that we have all been lied to. Universities and the government herded us into accommodation, knowing that we wouldn't be able to go to any classes (I had one hour of in-person classes a week in first term, none this term).
The whole experience has really revealed to me that higher education just isn't treated as a right, as it should be. Students aren't being treated with compassion. All anyone seems to care about is profit.
This is impacting teaching staff, too. In the last decade, university staff have had a 20% real-terms pay decrease, while students have seen tuition fees increase. We're being ripped off. I've found better community in student activist groups than I have in the university I'm paying £9,250 a year for.
Going on rent strike is really the only resource we have to have our voices heard. The commodification of higher education means that universities care more about our money than about us. None of us want to strike, it's a last resort for a student body that has no other way of getting its voice heard."
You can sign the NUS petition calling for a better deal for students here
A spokesperson from University of London (UOL) said: "The safety and wellbeing of students in halls is our top priority. We are confident we don’t have any unresolved complaints, and are committed to providing our residents with a safe place to live. There are clear channels to report any incidents, and we offer a range of support and advice.
"We also have procedures in place for our staff and students to ensure collective responsibility for mutual safety. We have had lower levels of COVID-19 than many other universities, and in large part this has been due to the careful behaviour of students, the support/ advice they have received from staff, and our close working relationship with Public Health England. 
"We are now offering halal and vegan options to students in isolation/quarantine, in addition to the meat and vegetarian options which have been available since the start of this academic year."

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