Can’t pay, won’t pay

First-year student Saranya Thambirajah reports on students’ experience of the pandemic – and how they are using rent strikes to fight back against the marketisation of higher education

May 26, 2021 · 8 min read
A student bedroom in Hampden Hall, Nottingham Trent University. Photo: Creative Commons

In September, hundreds of thousands of students packed up their things and moved away from home for the first time, heading to 130 different universities across the country. Four months on, students in more than 50 of these universities are on rent strike.

In any year, moving into university accommodation can be a daunting experience, but in the middle of a pandemic it takes on a whole new character. While we hadn’t been so naive as to think we would be having a ‘normal’ experience, many of us were unready for the reality, given the countless reassuring emails that universities sent out before enrolment, selling a version of institutions completely prepared to deal with the pandemic and provide students the necessary support.

Due to our marketised higher education system, universities are in competition with each other to attract students so that they can stave off increased financial insecurity by getting bums on seats and fees out of pockets. In light of the pandemic, every university wanted the shiniest product to sell – but it was impossible to deliver the package they promised. Since then, every decision has been made with commercial considerations being prioritised over the welfare of students and staff.

In limbo

Most first-year students have spent the overwhelming majority of our first term in our university accommodation. We attend lectures and seminars in our beds, write essays at our desks and drink in the makeshift pubs that are our kitchens. It’s where many of us were made to isolate for two weeks, with the flatmates we had met just weeks before, when we inevitably contracted Covid-19 after the government did nothing to mitigate the effects of thousands of students migrating across the country. Now, due to the latest lockdown, the majority of us have been told we should not return to these flats and will likely be away from them for months.

Some of us feel like we’re in limbo, having begun to feel ‘at home’ in our universities before being uprooted again, making it difficult to get into the swing of living independently for the first time. Many, unable to meet new people, have found it difficult to build a social foundation in these unknown cities far from home. This instability, along with the myriad difficulties that students have faced this term, has meant that many have been left struggling, isolated, their mental health and wellbeing badly affected.

For international students this has been further compounded. Moving alone to a new country is now an acutely isolating experience, as there are few opportunities to build a social network or any solid sense of ‘home’. Many had to stay here over the holidays, unable to return to their own countries due to travel restrictions, often left in their flats by themselves. The financial pressure of the pandemic has hit them hard. They already pay tens of thousands of pounds upfront for an education in our institutions; some have been forced to resort to food banks as they struggle to afford rent and basic necessities.

Meanwhile, universities (much like the government) have failed to respond adequately, seemingly abdicating their responsibility to provide us with sufficient support the minute we stepped foot into our new ‘homes’ and started paying rent and tuition fees. It certainly feels as though we were brought to university this year primarily for financial extraction, with the institutions devoid of any sense of how they might justify the price tag once we arrived. This is not an isolated failure unique to the pandemic, but rather fits into a bigger picture of the marketisation of higher education, which has been steadily ramping up for decades.

Students are viewed as mere consumers in the big business framework of higher education. We spend hours isolated in our accommodation, we barely step foot on campus, do degrees over Zoom and still have to pay tens of thousands for the privilege. Ten years on from the tuition fee protests at Millbank, students are again taking a stand against being used as walking cheque books – this time, by withholding their rent.

Rent strikes

A wave of rent strikes began early in our first term, with students at Bristol and Manchester demanding rent reductions, no penalty contract releases and improved support. In Bristol, 1,300 students signed up to strike within two weeks, while Manchester got national attention when first-year students occupied a university building in protest. Both groups achieved significant rent reductions across the first term, and at the time of writing are still striking to have all of their demands met and rent reduced for the whole year.

They aren’t alone. More than 50 universities, coordinating through the national Rent Strike Now network have joined them – and they are already winning. Multiple universities are slowly beginning to offer rent rebates to students unable to return due to government guidelines. Ben McGowan, an organiser of the Manchester strike, has called this ‘an admission of guilt’ and ‘clear evidence that rent striking and student action works’.

We are in the midst of the biggest-ever wave of student rent strikes and it feels like something has shifted in the atmosphere of higher education. Students are angry and feel ignored, and while these emotions were initially catalysed by universities’ response to the pandemic, there is a sense that this is also about something greater, an overspilling frustration at being short-changed and profit being put ahead of education. Activists hope this will transform into a wider student movement against marketisation to bring about real change in the higher education sector.

Student-staff solidarity

While these rent strikes have been a triumph for the student movement as a whole, it is important to remember that this issue doesn’t end with those who live in university halls. Four fifths of students rent privately, at the mercy of landlords and letting agencies, and must continue to pay their full rent for rooms they can’t use. The government’s refusal to take any action again shows how students are treated as consumers who are constantly left to their own devices.

Similarly, university staff have long had their roles marketised and bureaucratised, which has led to them being exploited and viewed as dispensable throughout this pandemic. Marketisation has resulted in many members of staff having casualised contracts, enabling universities to make thousands redundant due to the crisis. Those that did have their contracts renewed were put in danger, as the government and universities ignored the University and College Union advice against a return to campus until it was too late. Cleaning and security staff have also had little consideration given to their health, working on unsafe campuses and paid a meagre wage.

Universities weaponised student mental health to force face-to-face teaching and the ‘normal’ university experience they had so aggressively marketed to us and put the lives of academic and maintenance staff at risk in the process. Rent Strike Now stands in solidarity with UCU and all staff; many local strike groups have met with their UCU branches and have included ‘no staff redundancies’ as one of their demands.

Every aspect of the student experience, including that of having a home, has been commodified, while university staff have had their roles as educators reduced to commercial assets. University should be about students and staff working together in the name of higher education, and access to this education should not be reliant on the ability to pay extortionate rents, or on a university needing to up its profit margins.

The sheer scale of the rent strikes brings hope for further action and substantive changes around these issues in the future. The fight for an accessible, public education system and affordable non-exploitative student housing must continue beyond the current pandemic.

Saranya Thambirajah is an organiser with Rent Strike Bristol and Rent Strike Now. This article first appeared in Issue #231, published March 2021

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