Now weeks into the start of the new academic year, and students across the country are suffering in isolation.
With minimal support coming from university administrators, student unions and charities are warning of a mental health crisis amongst quarantined students. “There was a mental health crisis across universities prior to the pandemic,” stated Sara Khan, NUS vice president for liberation and equality. “The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.”

Earlier this month, one student in Manchester – 19-year-old Finn Kitson – was found dead in university accommodation after suffering from severe anxiety. “If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support,” Finn’s father tweeted, “then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety.”

Profiting from suffering

rent strike brum

Students were lulled back to campuses by money-hungry university managers and landlords with false promises of face-to-face teaching and the full ‘student experience’. Instead, thousands have been confined to their rooms, paying £9k for a purely online course, and forced to survive on deliveries of junk food.

Scandalously, some university bosses have even attempted to profit from self-isolating students, charging a hefty markup for food boxes – often of highly questionable quality.

Those quarantined at Queen’s University in Belfast, for example, are being charged £15 per day for packages of microwave meals and instant noodles. And students at Lancaster University have begun a petition – now signed by thousands – in protest against management charging £18 per day for food parcels worth an estimated £4.

Residents at Edinburgh University’s Pollock halls, meanwhile, have described their living situation as “the UK’s most expensive prison”.

But students are not taking these injustices lying down. Across the country, grassroots organisation is taking place to launch a fightback – particularly in the form of rent strikes.

Marxist Students Federation activists have been involved in campaigns at a number of campuses, raising demands for rent refunds, free food deliveries, and the provision of comprehensive mental health services.

These immediate needs must be accompanied by wider calls for free education and maintenance grants for all, in order to end the marketisation of higher education that is ultimately responsible for the current COVID crisis in universities.

Rent strike

In Bristol, Socialist Appeal supporter Jayne Pascoe spoke to Anna – a member of the Bristol Cut the Rent organising group and of Bristol West Labour Party – about the rent strike being organised amongst university students.

“Today, the rent strike begins!” Anna exclaimed, keen to share the news that 1,200 first year students at the University of Bristol have signed up to withhold their rent. Last Friday, she joined nine other students to deliver a set of demands to management.

Anna feels confident that theirs is a just and winnable cause. The situation faced by students is dire, she says: lockdown for quarantined students, with no access to common areas internally, and few opportunities to go outside halls of residence.

“So, the emails were sent out instructing students to stay in; don’t go out; full lockdown.”

“Surely the university could have predicted this?” Anna stated. “They seem to have failed to make contingency plans. If they did, where is the evidence?”

“For example, cultural and medical dietary requirements have caught them by surprise. One student had to wait 24 hours for something to eat.”

“Our biggest concern is the emotional impact. What happens if someone has a mental health crisis? Anonymous security guards patrol outside. It’s intimidating. It’s not that we want to break the rules, because we don’t want to spread the virus. But it feels like we’re the culprits here – and we’re not.”

“Let’s get this straight,” Anna continued, “students don’t want to get COVID.”

“The issue of security has been discussed amongst students, and it was felt important to safeguard student health from transgressions by a really small minority. But anonymous security guards, given who knows what instructions, aren’t the answer. We want full transparency.”

Solidarity

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Anna tells us that students at Manchester University have made contact with Bristol rent strike organisers, and she anticipates others will follow.

Regarding the Bristol action, Anna did the maths: “That’s over 1-in-5 students following through on their threat to the university – to withhold rent for rooms in Bristol University’s halls of residence.

“Students signed up with the promise of something near-normal for their eagerly-awaited university experience. In reality, it has been anything but.”

Anna herself is in private rented accommodation and not ‘locked down’.  She is still able to participate in the pared-back university experience, but has whole-heartedly thrown herself into this grassroots organisation.

“It happened really quickly. We started this just a few weeks ago, and within days it went beyond the targets we’d set ourselves. Exponential growth.

“Some of us were involved in the smaller rent strike before the summer holiday, demanding proportional rent-rebates after we’d been ordered to leave halls and go back home. We won that. It was a fair demand – as is this.”

Anna also emphasised the vital role of solidarity between students and workers. “We have supported university staff, supporting their campaigns earlier this year and last. And now they’re backing us.”

“If the university won’t meet our demands, we will spread the campaign,” Anna militantly promised. “Young people must not lose out because of the university’s greed to secure our fees, even when they could have seen this coming.”

Unite and fight!

Socialist Appeal and the Marxist Student Federation offer our full support to all students taking action against fees and rents.

The Bristol rent strikers have shown the way forward – we need grassroots organisation. Practically, this means:

  • Organising teams to knock on every door in every hall, with leaflets providing agitation, analysis and advice.
  • Collecting phone numbers and creating Whatsapp groups to organise, as was seen with community mutual aid networks set up at the start of the pandemic.
  • Calling mass democratic meetings – block-by-block, hall-by-hall – either in person or online.
  • Electing accountable representatives for each block and hall.
  • Networking these groups together to coordinate rent strikes and other actions.
  • Reaching out to university workers, and linking up with trade unions on campus, including academic staff in the UCU, security workers in Unite, and admin staff and cleaners in Unison.

With such democratic structures and organisation in place, staff and students would also be in a greatly strengthened position to wage a united struggle against the marketisation and profit-seeking that is eating away at higher education.

Successful rent strikes, therefore, could provide an enormous boost in the campaign against fees and cuts. We must be bold in our demands for free education. Students and workers: unite and fight!


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