How Private Debt Collectors Were Turned on Bristol’s Student Rent Strike

Bristol University has informed its student rent strikers that their debts will be passed onto private collectors – it's just the latest sign that our universities are more interested in money than student wellbeing.

It was the middle of the exam revision period and Saranya, a 19-year-old Politics and Sociology student, was ignoring multiple missed calls and an unopened email when she heard from her mum. ‘They asked her why I hadn’t paid my rent,’ she says. ‘They told her I had three warnings, and then they’d pass it on to a private debt collector company.’

She opened the email cautiously, and there it was: after multiple warnings, Bristol University said they would be using private debt collectors to retrieve unpaid rent from student rent strikers. A spokesperson for Bristol said the earliest date that cases will be sent to external debt collectors is 10 June, after the exam period is complete – giving rent strikers one month to organise and fight for concessions.

‘It frightened me,’ she says, explaining that this move risks impacting students’ credit scores permanently. ‘I never intended to put any students in any financial danger when I started the rent strike.’

Bristol students began the academic year in increased precarity and isolation. Covid-19 spread through halls; provision of food and mental health support was low. Early disappointments with universities’ failures to absorb the shock of the pandemic calcified into anger, and then action: Saranya spent her first days of university organising Bristol students’ rent strike, rallying hundreds of students in a powerful symbol against university inaction.

‘The universities can’t treat us like this,’ Saranya told me back in October. They were ignored, but Saranya maintained the pressure, grew strength in numbers, and in December, Bristol students won a 25 per cent reduction in rent and immediate tenancy release for those who left their accommodation.

Why has the university’s position changed? Saranya hazards: ‘They’re using the principle that life is semi-back to normal. But in reality, the situation hasn’t changed that much. There’s still no in-person teaching, we’re still in accommodation without enough wellbeing services and mental health support to meet demand, and people have tons of maintenance issues.’

Louis, 20, another early strike organiser and a Politics and International Relations student, tells me the strike lost momentum over the third lockdown. Some students felt less politically motivated after their big win, and as the university’s reputational damage lessened, authorities paid less attention to action in the second semester.

Saranya agrees. ‘Their hand is no longer being forced, so now they feel like they can get away with it. But we’ve come so far that we can’t give up our fight now.’ ‘Stuff like this is galvanising people again,’ Louis concurs. ‘And we will still be withholding our rent until we as a rent strike decide what to do.’

Bristol University says the decision to use private debt collectors is a last resort. A spokesperson said: ‘Sadly, after multiple attempts to retrieve unpaid rent, including warnings about debts eventually being collected we are now reaching that point. This is part of the tenancy agreement all students in halls sign before moving in.

‘We do not make a profit from rent in halls, unlike other landlords, all the money is ploughed back into the residences themselves. We have nearly 30,000 students and 8,000 staff and must think about the future of the University.’

The university is keen to emphasise that their surpluses from rent go directly into maintaining accommodation and student support. After all, the university is a charity, and they hold the wellbeing of students at the centre of their vision. But when I ask them if this isn’t at odds with using private debt collectors to chase student debt, they shifted the focus.

‘We have regularly reminded students what support is available and have encouraged them to get in touch if they’re having any financial difficulties,’ they continue. ‘Our hardship funds are uncapped and available to all students, regardless of landlord, during this challenging period.

‘We know that this has been a difficult year for students and their wellbeing remains our top priority,’ the spokesperson continued. ‘Our mental health and financial services are on hand to support all students – and we continue to urge anyone in need to get in touch as soon as possible.’

As market forces continue to expand and shape educational institutions, the harsh measures used against students have led some to question whether universities can still reasonably consider themselves charities. Law researcher Dr. Mary Syge’s article ‘Regulation of universities as charities: one step forward, two steps back’ calls for the importance of external regulation so university practices reflect charity values, and improve transparency and accountability in institutions.

‘Ultimately we are limited. We can try going against the whole marketised university system – we can’t really alter the funding system, but in our own bubble we’re asking how universities can soften their approach and support students better,’ Louis says.

Tomorrow, Friday 14 May represents a crucial day for Bristol students: the university has offered a meeting at which they intend to put forward their case against private debt collectors. ‘It would be good to see Bristol look at rent debts and try to understand why that’s happening, giving us more financial support, rather than taking a punitive approach,’ according to Dr. Syge.

Saranya echoes this idea. ‘We want some kind of concession that shows us they actually care about student wellbeing, rather than putting us in this position.’

The big takeaway for Louis is how much universities seem to resemble large financial institutions now, rather than places of enrichment and education. For Saranya, it’s the importance of strength in numbers, and the potential of mass movements to transform the way institutions treat individuals, even when punitive and harsh reforms force students into unnecessary turmoil.

‘I’ll carry this into my second year,’ she says. ‘We’ll keep fighting back.’