Riot and Rebellion: Students withhold rent to protest university Covid-19 conditions

December 29, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

A rising number of students are joining rent strikes to protest the heavy-handed hall lockdowns and lack of in-person teaching at universities across the UK.

What does this mean?

Students are joining arms to protest the appalling university conditions imposed by universities in response to covid-19. There is currently over 20 rent strikes underway or being organised at some of the UK’s most prestigious institutions. Of particular eminence is the University of Bristol, where over 1,400 students are withholding rent to secure a 30% reduction in accommodation costs. These demands reflect student dissatisfaction with current university conditions as many courses have remained online, despite promises of “blended” learning. 

The University of Manchester has also been criticised for its poor handling of the pandemic by erecting fences to prevent students from leaving their accommodation. These harsh measures have left many students feeling trapped and alone at a time where social interaction is already limited. 

The Department of Education has tried to diffuse tensions by encouraging universities “to consider students’ interests”, however, many feel this does not go far enough. The President of the University and College Union, Vicky Blake, highlighted the need for “some leadership that goes beyond offering [students] a few Pot Noodles”.

What's the big picture effect?

Student rent strikes across the country have been considerably successful with the University of Manchester reducing winter accommodation costs by 30%. Similarly, the University of Bristol has given a 30% rebate, over seven weeks, to reflect the staggered return to halls in 2021. However, the effects of these strikes may be limited. Recent data compiled by the Office for Students revealed that only 19% of students live in university-managed accommodation. Comparatively, private landlords have been more reluctant to offer discounts. The ironically named, Sanctuary Students, has refused to discuss their customers’ concerns, arguing that students will still receive their loans as normal. 

While the government has protected tenants by suspending evictions many feel this is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Indeed, Dr Alex Baker, a researcher at the University of Sheffield believes the suspension will “do more to help flatten the curve for the court system than it does to protect tenants from evictions”. These concerns were echoed by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan who feared that the capital faced a “ticking time bomb of debt, arrears and widespread evictions”. 

In any case, students in private accommodation should be cautious to withhold rent as it may expose them to serious legal consequences. Rent strikes that are politically motivated do not have protection in law. As a result, landlords can bring court proceedings for unpaid rent. An adverse court judgment can harm a student’s ability to obtain financial services and apply for certain jobs in the future. Universities are reluctant to prosecute students due to the political controversy this would cause, however, the same deterrent does not apply to private landlords.

On the whole, student rent strikes across the UK have proved to be an effective mechanism for establishing change. On a deeper level, the strikes have demonstrated the power of the collective student body which has been exploited in recent years. This new-found power may force universities to refocus their priorities away from profits margins and towards the people that make higher-education possible: the employees and students.

Report written by Luke Cuthbert

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