In the week starting 16 November, groups of students are organising workshops, banner drops, and email campaigns to highlight high rents, draconian lockdowns, and general lack of support at UK Universities. The National Union of Students (NUS) is promoting and encouraging local events, but has stopped short of calling for a national campaign of rent strikes.
From 12 November, students at Manchester escalated their rent strike by occupying Owens Park Tower. The occupiers say: “We were lied to and brought onto unsafe campuses, forced to pay insane rent for facilities we can’t even access. We’ve tried protests, we’ve withheld our rent and we’re being ignored! … we’re occupying the tower until they respond to us.”
The rent strike has been backed by a group of Manchester alumni, the University and College Union (UCU), and many other local activists.
Some Bristol University students are also on rent strike. Other groups are planning rent strikes for the New Year (e.g. at York). Edinburgh students are threatening strike action if the university does not agree to their demands: half rent for all students for the duration of hybrid learning, improved online service and free wifi, no victimisation of protesters.
Manchester and Bristol have both taken action this week; other groups include Liberate the University, Pause or Pay UK (art students demanding courses are paused or students compensated), and Unis Resist Border Controls.
It is not only undergraduates who are feeling cheated by their institutions and the government. This week UK Research and Innovation published guidance on how it will support the 22,000 PhD students it funds, many of whom have had to delay their research as a result of the pandemic. A cap of 2,800 students will be offered finance to extend their research time.
The pandemic has seen many have to put off lab work and field work; others have lost their jobs which top up income, including teaching jobs at universities. A large meeting of Pandemic PGRs planned a UK-wide campaign to back up demands including that all research students should be financially supported and that the status of research students should change to that of employed staff, so they can access employment rights, proper expenses and the government furlough scheme.
Meanwhile in a bid to get students home for Christmas, the government have issued guidance for universities stipulating that students must travel between 3-9 December according to a schedule of staggered departure dates set by universities and including rapid testing. But the guidance doesn’t work for students on placements, or who are working up to or over the Christmas period! In any case many students have already travelled home — and that’s why there is an increasing pressure for students to get out of accommodation contracts.
With disputes against cuts building up at Goldsmiths and University of East London and other disputes bringing results for lecturers at Heriot Watt and catering staff working for Sodexo at Sussex (both over job cuts), next term will be an interesting one for those of us defending the future of higher education and a difficult one for Uni managers and the government.