In the last week of the first term, groups from more universities are joining the wave of rent strikes. They will withhold rent payments due in January 2021. Students at a dozen universities, possibly more, are now involved.
On Wednesday 2 December, a London demonstration, called by the cross-capital Liberate the University group and backed by the National Union of Students (NUS), was attended by 150 or more, with Goldsmiths, UAL (University of the Arts, London), and King’s students leading the mobilisation. In Manchester, the same week, where there are two ongoing rent strikes at Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University, hundreds of students marched down Oxford Road to the city centre.
In both cases the student protests were heavily policed. The London demonstration was shut down after about an hour. The right to protest, and “cops off campus”, must become demands of this growing movement.
A number of new activist groups are starting up in the wake of this movement. One of these groups is “9k4What?”, has called a national meeting for Sunday 13 December. This group has focused on a tuition fee rebate on the grounds that degrees are “not value for money”, but the message is broadening out: “When we ask ‘9k4What?’, we’re not just asking why we pay 9k for zoom classes, why we pay 9k to be fenced in to our accommodation, why we pay 9k for reduced access to libraries and services. We’re asking, why should anyone be paying £9,000 to access higher education in the first place?”
The shift is good, but the focus is still potentially divisive. It could pit students’ interests against those of staff delivering the education that has been designated “not value for money”.
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. That is the formulation preferred by NUS.
It is important this debate is pursued and argued out. Next term is likely to see action on a number of local industrial disputes. Staff and students need to be united — demanding a national bailout of universities.
Extra governmental financial support at the institutional level would cover: rent rebates, grants, essential covid-distanced learning (such as lab work), no cuts and increased funding for student support services especially mental health services, degree extensions for all students who need them but especially research students and student carers, fee cuts and waivers for international students, no staff cuts, insourcing of cleaning staff, adequate PPE.
Many of the problems brought by the pandemic could have been mitigated by better management. One such issue now is about the academic setbacks caused by Covid — ranging from impacts on mental health to loss of lab time. Some groups of students are now pushing for extended “no disadvantage” policies: that mitigating circumstances on assessments be generously applied. If managements drag their heels on that or fail to offer fair policies, it could be a key battle next term.