Following protests, a still-ongoing rent strike and a two-week occupation, Manchester University students have won a 30% rent reduction for semester one. This will cost the university around £12 million, making it the biggest win for student rent strikers in the UK.
The student union will now hold a vote of no confidence in Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell, and the rent strike will continue next term.
Students at Manchester Metropolitan, Goldsmiths, Edinburgh, Cambridge, York, Nottingham, Bristol and Queen Mary universities are getting organised for a January rent strike, with more universities likely to join them. Other universities, such as Sussex, Stirling, Aberdeen and Glasgow, also have newly set up student tenants’ unions.
At Goldsmiths, students are demanding no repercussions for rent strikers, a 50% rent reduction, no pay cuts or job losses for staff, increased resources for student wellbeing and access to counselling, no-penalty early withdrawal from tenancy contracts and immediate action against racism on campus, including anti-racist training for students and staff and a new complaints procedure.
After reports of inadequately-dealt-with cases of sexual violence in halls and the university’s recent decision to cut the funding of the student union’s “Against Sexual Violence” project, they are also demanding the immediate removal of sexual violence perpetrators from halls, and improved systems of reporting and support for survivors.
On 24 November a meeting of around twenty rent strikers, student union officers and activists, including Workers’ Liberty students, and National Union of Students (NUS) President Larissa Kennedy, discussed national coordination and demands. The “big five” drafted were:
1. A government bailout of higher education
2. Financial support for all students
3. Solidarity with staff: no job cuts, all outsourced staff in-house now, full sick and isolation pay for all
4. An end to the Hostile Environment (including the visa-monitoring of international students), the hyper-securitisation of campus and the Prevent strategy
5. Democratised education; student-staff councils to decide universities’ Covid-19 responses.
There was debate on what this financial support for students should entail. Local “9k for What?” groups, Liberate the University committee members and the Pause or Pay campaign argued for fee reimbursements alongside rent cuts. Workers’ Liberty students and others argued against demands for fee refunds on the grounds that they position students as customers lobbying for our “consumer rights” having been sold a “substandard product”, making it harder to argue against marketisation.
Pitting students against staff
This can easily be spun into a narrative that pits students’ interests against staff. The Brexit Party have this week launched a campaign to “stop the student rip-off” demanding 30% off fees due to “substandard online-only courses”.
A non-means tested, government grant available to all students, including those with no recourse to public funds, immediately available and framed as “financial support” and not “compensation”, would be preferable. This is the formulation preferred by NUS.
On Wednesday 2 December, 4pm, London-based Liberate the University and NUS will hold a rally outside Universities UK (the organisation that represents British Vice Chancellors) in Tavistock Square. It is a vast improvement on previous years that the NUS are co-hosting demonstrations, and helping to organise discussions, however small, on national coordination of rent strikes and debate around demands.
But NUS should be using its networks to spread rent strikes, student-staff solidarity networks and the above demands to every student union it represents, rather than saying one thing to a small group of activists and another to sabbatical officers who are to our right or not yet part of activist circles.