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.
When 19-year-old Eleanor, a first-year engineering student, left home for Exeter University at the end of 2020, she did not think that she would spend her time helping to coordinate a rent strike in response to her university's handling of a global pandemic. When we speak on Zoom, she has just finished a shift in a local supermarket where she works part-time to fund her degree.
"The university’s senior management keep telling us they’ve had a 'tough old time' recently but, as you can see, I’m working rather a lot too. They’ve also told us that participating in a rent strike could be harmful to us and anyone we encourage to participate," she explains.
However, such implied threats aren't putting her off. She and her co-organisers Josh and Immy are coordinating a rent strike of 547 students in total. They don’t feel as though they have a choice; action needed to be taken because students are not currently getting a fair deal.
"We're very much treated like cash cows instead of human beings," Eleanor says. "Fundamentally, I don't think that the accommodation or the education I'm receiving is worth what the university says it is." There are issues with cleaning and vermin which all three are raising with management.
"Normally I'd get eight to 10 hours of contact time. But I get two online seminars a week," Immy adds. On top of that, both Eleanor and Josh say that students are being treated inappropriately by campus security during lockdown.
"If I have had lectures all day and come back and want to do some laundry late at night or just go on a walk, which I often do at around 8.30pm, I’ve been told I’m not allowed out of the building because there’s an 8pm curfew," Josh explains. "I take exception to being treated like this."
Across the country, student activists like Eleanor, Immy and Josh are currently participating in the biggest wave of rent strikes in four decades. The last time there was a movement like this was in the 1970s, when students at Sussex and, later, Warwick University went on strike to protest poor quality accommodation and rent rises. In 1973, there was also a nationwide strike in protest against a drop in the value of student grants.
The 2020 and 2021 student rent strikes are the largest student movement since the tuition fee hike resistance, which saw thousands march in 2010 and again in 2015 against the government's decision to increase tuition fees to £9,250 a year.
In January 2021, students from over 45 universities were on strike amid growing frustration at the heavy-handed enforcement of campus lockdowns, students being asked to pay for empty rooms they cannot return to and the fact that those who were able to return are unable to access face-to-face teaching.
Nineteen-year-old Saranya is in her first year studying politics and sociology at Bristol. She is part of the rent strike at her own university and also helping to coordinate the national rent strike network. "These strikes started as a response to the mishandling of the pandemic by our universities, accommodation providers and the government," she says, "all of which has really just exposed the issues that existed in higher education before the pandemic, which have been caused by the marketisation of education in recent decades."
Saranya is talking about the fact that universities are more like businesses than ever before and, as a result, there is a disconnect between their motivation – profit – and the pastoral needs of their students.
Due to the tuition fee hike of 2010, today’s students pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees alone and have to contend with the cost of living – namely rent and food – on top of that. This means that the average student faces the prospect of graduating with debts of £50,800. Rent is the most expensive outgoing for students and it has become increasingly unaffordable over the last decade, partly because students from low income backgrounds can no longer take out maintenance grants and must instead take on extra loans.
Saranya, the Exeter rent strike coordinators and Ve, a 19-year-old theology student and strike coordinator in Manchester, all say that social media has made it possible for students' discontent to become a national movement. Through TikTok and Instagram, they have been able to share stories of inadequate housing and gain traction for a shared narrative about the need to reassess how students are treated.
"The stories of people who were struggling really came through Instagram," explains Ve. "But TikTok especially has helped us to reach the exact people who will support us or need our support. That is what has helped the movement to spread so quickly. My 15-year-old cousin told me that our occupation of The Tower [University of Manchester accommodation] came up on her 'for you' discovery page."
Because rent is the biggest expense students have, it is also the thing that gives them the most leverage. That, perhaps, is why these strikes have been so effective.
"This is just not the experience we were marketed," Ve says. "We were told that it was okay to leave home and come here but we aren’t able to use any of the facilities and we are still being asked to pay rent. In no way are any of us getting what we are paying for."
Since 2010, students have been asked to pay huge sums to attend university and, whether the politicians who raised their tuition fees realised it or not, this has turned them into customers. Those customers are not happy with the service they’re receiving and they're using their commercial power to demand better.
In Exeter the strike continues, as do negotiations with management. "We are no closer to getting rent refunds," sighs Josh. "However, they have promised to investigate the rat infestation and cleaning issues. I wouldn't call that success as there's been no action yet."
In Manchester, the campaign continues but Ve notes that a 30% rent reduction has been secured because of the movement. In Bristol, Saranya says 1,800 people have signed up to the strike, which has now won back £3.2 million in rent rebates.
"The national rent strike movement is really picking up speed," Saranya says. "We are going to keep on fighting for a rent cut for the whole academic year."
Like so many responses to injustice which have taken place during the pandemic, this wave of radical rent strikes is about so much more than coronavirus. It's about setting the tone for years to come.
"This is the first time that a lot of students are experiencing the material impacts of the marketisation of higher education on their lives," Saranya adds. "We really hope that even when this wave of rent strikes is over, when the pandemic is over, that we can continue to have conversations about everything that has gone wrong in universities."
Ve feels similarly. "It's a really crucial time to be a part of the student movement," they note. "Our strike win in Manchester showed students across the country that they have power when they unite against exploitation. The pandemic has exacerbated the effects of pre-existing systems of oppression, so that many students who were not previously motivated to become politically involved have taken part in direct action by striking."
This might not be what any of these young people had planned for their first year at university but they feel that the political organising they're doing is the only way to bring about change, not just for their cohort of students but for those in the years to come.
Robert Kerse, Chief Operating Officer at the University of Bristol, said: "While we understand this has been a particularly difficult term for students, we believe the university has gone above and beyond to provide support during this stressful and challenging period. We appreciate the cost of accommodation is a major concern to our students at this unprecedented time and hope that our rent rebate decisions will provide them with assurance that we are taking their concerns around this very important issue seriously. Our hardship funds are uncapped and available to all students, regardless of landlord, during this challenging period. We have also provided additional bursaries to those students in all years of study who are likely to be in Bristol because they have no alternate home.
"We have agreed that students who do not return to university-allocated accommodation as a result of the latest government restrictions will receive a full rent rebate from 1st February until the start of the student spring vacation on 26th March, or an earlier date if students are permitted to travel to their university accommodation. This additional rent rebate follows the 10-day full rent rebate we provided in December in response to the national directive for teaching to be moved online between 3rd and 9th December, and a 30% rebate from 19th December to 5th February to reflect previous government guidance for a staggered return in 2021.
"Students who are in halls continued to receive the 30% rent reduction up to 5th February. We will review whether it is fair to provide further rebates in late February. Overall, this means that undergraduate students living in residences will receive an approximate 25% rebate for the entire year, which we believe to be one of the most significant rebates across the university sector. The overall package of additional COVID-related support for students in halls up to the end of March will total over £16.5 million, including rent rebates, the provision of free food boxes to self-isolating students, cleaning supplies and laundry services. While the latest restrictions are challenging, thanks to the hard work of colleagues across our university, and considerable investment on the part of the university, we have continued to deliver the high-quality education our students deserve."
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: "We gave all students in our halls of residences a reduction for Semester 1 (Sept 2020 – 31 Jan 2021) totalling 30%. Students living in university accommodation who have not returned to their accommodation since the national lockdown announcement on 5th January are not being charged until the end of the current restrictions or the date that they return to their accommodation in Manchester. Students in residences can break their accommodation agreement, clear their rooms and hand back keys once during term time in the 2020/21 academic year without financial penalty."
R29 has contacted the University of Exeter for comment.