At their best, university halls are built of beer cans, beans on toast, and long nights of the soul. But for students arriving in the middle of a pandemic this September, the atmosphere had shifted – to one of anger, vulnerability, and disenfranchisement. Those who remained in halls spent the next month fielding texts from test and trace, receiving positive Covid tests, and shelling out hundreds of pounds to be isolated in their bedrooms.
Universities have largely failed to absorb the shock of the pandemic, but students—first at Bristol and Manchester, and since around the country—began to mobilise, initiating what has become the biggest nationwide rent strike in 40 years.
‘Before we got here, the university sent us reassuring emails saying support would be in place and measures had been taken so we could study on campus safely,’ says Saranya Thambiraja, a 19-year-old Politics and Sociology student at Bristol. ‘It became apparent very quickly that wasn’t the case. I didn’t feel like I needed to be there.’
Within a few days of those early disappointments, the Bristol rent strike movement had 100 signups and a comprehensive set of demands for a better wellbeing support plan for students, no-contract early releases for students who wished to leave, and 30 percent off rent for the entire year.
In halls, social bonds ossified. The movement formed in the same way traditional trade unions come together: the students, who saw each other every day, had one coherent identity and shared needs which made spreading the message and recruiting straightforward. By 24 October, 1,300 Bristol students had signed up to strike.
Tensions were rising in Manchester, too. Lotte, a 19-year old Economics student, tells me: ‘We felt like we were only there so the university could profit off us. We experienced extremely poor living conditions in halls – many people had break-ins, floods, broken heating, pests. It just wasn’t worth the price we were paying.’
Manchester’s rent strike movement also began in October, but didn’t pick up as quickly. The Students’ Union told Lotte to call off the strike and withheld support from the movement – until one morning, when Manchester students woke up to find the university had erected metal fences around their accommodation to stop people from leaving.
As the sky turned black at 4 PM, nearly 800 students came out of their bedrooms to tear down the fences in protest. This was the beginning of a turbulent month which would characterise Manchester’s tactics for securing a rent strike victory: direct action, protests, occupations, banner drops, and leveraging media coverage against the university’s reputation.
‘The fences were just a visual reminder of how little the university cared about us,’ Lotte tells me. ‘But we realised what they did care about was their reputation and the money students bring in. So we could target that.’
‘That pushed a lot of people over the edge,’ Ben McGowan, an 18-year-old Politics and Sociology student, adds. ‘Manchester students who had never heard of the rent strike before were suddenly messaging us, wanting to get involved.’
Attempts to initiate university rent strikes have previously been dismissed as fringe movements among radical left students – but things were different this time. Ben says the rent strikers have received an overwhelming amount of positive media coverage and public support, which is buoying for them, and terrifying for university chancellors.
In Manchester, protests grew in size, and an occupation of a university building began in mid-November. Activists from Extinction Rebellion lent the rent strikers a projector, which they used to project an image on a main university building with the slogan ‘Stand up to the university of Moneychester’.
Eventually, after a month of terrible crisis handling by the university, Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell offered 30 percent off rent for the first half of the academic year. The students also won a no-redundancies policy for maintenance staff, and no penalties for rent strikers.
Back in Bristol, the movement grew through online rallies, social media, and canvassing. In mid-November, striking students eligible for bursaries were told those bursaries would be used to pay rent arrears – a policy on which the university was forced to u-turn after a massive social media campaign. There was a mass email campaign to Bristol Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady, too, and posters appeared all over Bristol. Bristol rent strikers were lucky to have the support of their Students’ Union, which facilitated meetings with university management.
In early December, Bristol students won a 10-day rent rebate over the Christmas period, and 30 percent off between 19 December and 1 February – amounting to a £3.2 million payout to students. Bristol students also won a change in policy over early contract releases–meaning students can leave when they want without incurring penalties–and greater transparency in security activity, which Saranya says was ‘heavy-handed’ with students during lockdown periods.
‘The rent strike movement nationwide exploded after Bristol and Manchester’s wins,’ Ben says. ‘Other students suddenly realised it was possible to win.’
Saranya tells me new rent strikes are starting almost daily. The latest count of UK universities on rent strike is 55 out of 140. There are movements in Bangor, Birmingham, Brighton, Brunel, Cambridge, City of London, private CRM halls in Manchester, Derby, Dundee, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gloucester, Goldsmiths, Imperial, Kent, KCL, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, London intercollegiate halls, LSE, MMU, Newcastle, Northampton, Nottingham, NTU, Oxford, Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Queen Mary, Royal Holloway, Salford, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Southampton, Sussex, UAL, UCL, UEA, among Unite Students, Warwick, and York. In the last few days alone, Essex, Coventry, Leicester, Cardiff, and Swansea have also joined the strike.
Most groups are withholding their January rent payments and demanding for a reduction in rent of between 30 and 50 percent, no repercussions for rent strikers, and a better wellbeing and mental health support plan for students. Many rent strike movements have established links of solidarity between staff and students, demanding a no-redundancies policy for all staff and PhD students. Jo Grady from the UCU and tenants’ unions such as ACORN have offered support and advice.
Organisers from Bristol and Manchester also caught the attention of former student organisers from UCL, who won a historic rent strike in 2016—amounting to a payout of £1.4 million to students—and helped them create a central coordinating body to aid rent strikes across the nation.
‘The rent strike alumni from UCL helped us make it into an even bigger national movement,’ Saranya says. ‘We revitalised the website and their socials to create a central system, and help other universities set up their rent strikes.’ Now, there are elections being held so each student rent strike movement has two representatives to share resources and participate in national coordination. As the students tell me, there’s still so much more to play for.
Strikers are Winning
After the latest lockdown announcement, Bristol, Exeter, Sussex, Dundee, Cambridge, KCL, Durham, Newcastle, Leeds, and MMU have also offered rent rebates for students whose courses don’t require them to come back to uni over the lockdown period. But for Bristol, Saranya says this doesn’t apply to students who came back to halls this month. ‘So we’re pushing for everyone to get that 100 percent rebate, even if they came back for just one night.’ She adds: ‘And we want 30 percent off the entire year.’
Kieran, an 18-year-old Political Economics student, is in the early stages of organising a rent strike at Essex. ‘I grew up in houses like this, so I’m not bothered about the accommodation,’ he says. ‘But it’s not worth the price I’m paying at all. They’re obviously just trying to profit off students. Back at home, my little brother and little sister really need their own rooms now, so I need to be here.’
Essex has 50 sign-ups so far, and with some people still on the fence, organisers are heading up online rallies, phone-banking, and leafleting around campus. They want 30 percent off the entire year, and the university to promise not to raise rent above inflation so that university halls remain accessible for future students. They’re doing it without the support of their Students’ Union, but the UCU have shown solidarity, and Kieran’s lecturer turned up to one of their rallies.
Goldsmiths, meanwhile, have been rent striking since October, and managed to infiltrate a university senior management meeting on Zoom where an anonymous speaker highlighted the students’ plight to eye-rolls from the management team. They now have more meetings set up to discuss their demands.
The signals given by university chancellors that student rent strike movements have the legitimate power to win highlight the institutions’ weakening position and, more broadly, a changing narrative around renters’ power relative to their landlords. Salford University recently announced rent rebates of up to £1,200 for all students, even if they have a private landlord. A smaller rent strike movement is just hitting its stride in Salford, but this concession was made without any real pressure or lobbying. Students are in talks with senior management for rent rebates all over the country – and the feeling is more optimistic than ever.
‘Students are angry,’ Kieran tells me. ‘And we have a right to be.’