There are now around 70 student rent strike and tenants’ groups at universities across the UK and the organisation and politics of the movement is taking a clearer shape. At the same time some University and private landlords are offering inadequate rent rebates, though inadequate ones.
The National Union of Students held a high profile rally on Monday 25 January, under the banner Students Deserve Better, with UCU General Secretary Jo Grady, Owen Jones and rent strikers speaking. The grassroots organising is being co-ordinated by local groups, a new committee of rent strike groups and local groups of the 9k4what campaign. Liberate the University, a group which came out of 2019 strike support work at London unis, is now trying to build a national co-ordination of more long-term and more political campaigning.
In some places student rent strikers have had to battle for local control over their strike and Student Unions have acted over the head of the strikers, accepting or urging more limited demands. The national co-ordination is a bulwark against that behaviour.
The rent rebates now being conceded are either very limited in monetary terms, or are available only to students not currently occupying their accommodation. Brighton Uni students have been told that they are entitled to a 60% of their third payment, but this does not add up to all the weeks of lockdown. Nottingham has offered a rebate for full lockdown but not for those students who have had to return.
Elsewhere the rebates are being restricted to the narrow time-frame of the current lockdown. That is assumed to end in mid-February; but everyone in the UK but University managements knows that the lockdown is likely to go beyond mid-February!
This is a farce, but it is also creating insecurity and potential harm. Glasgow University have told students that there will be rebates either for the period up to mid-February or for a longer time period, but how long that will be. That leaves some students planning to return to their uni accommodation in mid-February, despite their completely justifiable concerns over safety and the conditions that will greet them.
Students have now started up strikes at accommodation owned by private student housing companies, including Unite Student. The company has offered a 50% reduction, but just for four weeks! These companies will ultimately take a tougher line with students than most University landlords. Yet Universities, who are responsible for contracts with these companies, consistently avoid responsibility for the exploitative behaviour of the private providers.
What is needed is a national UK-wide package of support for students, paid for by a government bailout.
This should include at least 40% rent rebate of rents already paid (the higher demand of the strikes) and all rents to be cancelled until next year.
There should be no face-to-face teaching, except on those course where it is essential, until it is reasonably safe (likely after Easter).
There should be fee rebates for students who pay fees upfront (Masters and International Students). And grants for home students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to compensate for loss of income.
There are other demands that are becoming more important in the discussions. Central to these is the demand for Universities to “Open the Books”. Not all universities are cash-rich, but many are. Others would be able to invest in their staff and students if they ditched vanity projects or sold assets. They could retain and increase staff, and expand student welfare.
That investment needs to be planned for in the longer term, as the UK adjusts to ways of managing Covid-19 in the longer term. Such plans should include cuts in rents and new contracts which meet the needs of student tenants (for example, the right to get out of contracts early).