Occupying to win our demands: an interview with a Sheffield Hallam rent striker

Submitted by cathy n on 29 April, 2021 - 8:19

Workers' Liberty spoke to James C. from the Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) occupation.

This is an escalation of the rent strikes that have been going on all term. The uni have refused to meet with the rent strike. They’ve ignored us. So this is an attempt to get their attention and force them to meet with us.

We want them to open a dialogue with the rent strike. And since the occupation began they have agreed to that. The second demand is that we want them to to threaten to break the nomination agreements they have with private halls providers if they don’t pay students their rent back.

The third demand is for the university to change the way they deal with sexual violence and treat it a lot more seriously.

At SHU, nearly all of our halls are run by private companies outsourced by the university. SHU has what are called nomination agreements with providers. These are basically a way of the university saying, “these are good, responsible companies that we are happy to have looking after our students” and they make these nominated companies their preferred providers.

These agreements mean that students are herded into these halls and these companies make a lot of money off the university.

Because of all the problems that students have been having with halls this year, there’s now strong grounds for the uni to say “you’re not holding up your end of our contract” and therefore terminate the nomination agreements. We want them to threaten to break these agreements off if the companies don’t give students a substantial rent rebate. Those companies that have made an offer are only offering 50% for the period of lockdown. Others have offered nothing. We want to see 100% of rents for the second term of this academic year paid back, across all halls provider companies. And otherwise SHU should be breaking its relationship with those companies.

There have been a lot of stories that we’ve heard from students about their complaints of sexual harassment or sexual violence not being investigated properly, or where the uni has done nothing or failed to refer people in need of help to mental health services. There are also accusations that halls have been covering up attacks or protecting offenders. Some staff have made sexually inappropriate comments to students. Some who have complained of sexual harassment have been told such things as “that’s what you get for being pretty”. So there’s a sustained, overall problem with the way SHU and halls companies are dealing with this issue.

We want SHU to recognise that they haven’t been dealing with it properly. And we want them to review the entire system of how they address sexual violence and make appropriate changes. I don’t know the ins and outs of these systems but I know that they aren’t working and that SHU and these companies can do better. But essentially they need to create a culture where students feel like they’ll be believed when they come forward and that their complaints will be properly investigated and students will get the support they need.

The occupation has been going well. But when we came in on Thursday, security assaulted some students and at first didn’t allow us access to cooking or washing facilities bit that’s all been sorted out now. We have learned how we can expect Hallam will respond to future occupations.

The UCU have put out a statement supporting us and Unison either have done or will do soon. The SU: there’s an interesting relationship between us and them. This time they’ve been good at making sure that our welfare has been OK. They’ve lobbied the university about access to showers, a fridge and so on. In terms of the SU supporting the demands of the occupation they haven’t done a lot but they have helped with our welfare.

Nationally the students’ union should re-organise itself similar to the old National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), i.e. a left wing organisation that unites a lot of the student movement at the grassroots. It should learn from and build on what the NCAFC did: but not copy it, and it should be prepared to do things in a new way, on its own terms. In terms of the politics of that organisation, I think that will be decided by the organisation itself once its formed but obviously it will be looking at demanding free education as a public good, and decolonising and democratising universities. There is a strong desire to reimagine university life and what the university experience should look like for students.

Rather than just campaigning for no tuition fees, students want to see a reorganisation of universities and the relationship they have with students.

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