The Lancaster rent strike emerged during the national student movement against universities and landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic. From Newcastle to Bristol thousands of students withheld their rent, and Lancaster was a shining example of this, winning a significant victory for students.
The student rent-strike began in January 2021. 1,500 students came together to withhold rent and sign an open letter against the university. The student movement across the country helped inspire the rent-strike. 50+ universities having a rent strike at the same time is bound to have a seismic impact on consciousness amongst students.
It was the national situation, and the actions taken by students across the nation which set a standard and greatly inspired those first years striking at Lancaster. The demands of the Lancaster rent strike were:
– 50% rent reductions for students on campus
– 100% rent reductions for students off-campus
– Improved student well-being support, including mental health provision and hardship funding
– No repercussions for students on rent strike
These demands were entirely reasonable in the face of the extreme situation we (still) find ourselves in. The size and strength of the rent strike forced management to offer two £400 rent reductions. This was a victory for the hundreds of students who made a stand and withheld their rent.
The main lesson from the Lancaster rent strike is that collective action, a bold stand, and radical demands achieve results. This is a lesson the student movement can learn from and build upon in the coming years.
But what’s next for those hundreds of students at Lancaster who have shown that they can and will fight for their rights against distant university bosses and landlords?
Clearly we didn’t achieve everything we wanted from this strike, although we took a major step forward which cost the university millions of pounds. How do we now continue the fight for everyone to have equal access to decent education? Ultimately we need to have a perspective of fighting to remove all barriers to education, which means fighting for free education with grants for all students.
During the strike effective use was made of Zoom, social media, and group chats to keep students informed. This infrastructure should now be used to raise the sights of students, including the new intake in the next academic year, to the next stage in the struggle – the fight for free education.
We should be organising discussions and sharing information about how to fight for free education in the context of the unprecedented crisis of the capitalist system sparked by coronavirus. The rent strikes themselves were provoked by the pandemic’s uncovering of the rampant profiteering which has infested universities. The virus didn’t cause this profiteering, or this capitalist crisis, it merely shone a spotlight on it.
The fight for free education is the fight against the capitalist system as a whole. It’s a fight for socialism. This is a battle which extends far beyond Lancaster University campus. We should build on the victory of the rent strike this year with some serious political education about capitalism and socialism.
This should include a strategy for how to link up the successful student movement at Lancaster with organisations of workers within the university and beyond. Lecturers and staff at universities are facing attacks on their pensions once again, and the University and College Union (UCU) is deliberating over what action to take. Fresh from a successful rent strike struggle, students should offer their support to staff under attack – facing the same cuts to their living standards that students have been resisting.
Further afield, workers in all sectors are facing off with bosses trying to make them pay for the crisis of the last year. The scourge of fire-and-rehire which is hitting workers all over the place is the latest example of this. 1,500 Lancaster students refused to pay for the crisis and instead forced concessions from university management. Support from these students for workers in Lancaster and the surrounding areas would be a big boost.
We should be building on the rent strike by organising meetings in solidarity with local trade unions, at the university and beyond, to discuss how we can fight for better standards of living for students and workers alike.
If we are to carry through the momentum from this rent strike then we need some durable structures through which to organise ourselves as radical students.
One of the weaknesses, not just of the Lancaster rent strike but of most rent strikes around the country, was the ad hoc nature of its organisation. Without clear avenues for participation and democratic accountability, there’s a risk that students become alienated from the struggle and that can weaken the strike. Without avenues through which the mass of students can make their views known, those leading the strike can make the wrong call about when to advance the struggle, when to retreat, and what demands to put forward.
If we want to achieve the original aims of the rent strike, which at least 1,500 Lancaster students clearly do, and to take this further by building links with students and workers around the country to fight for free education and for socialism, then we need to involve as many people as possible in the movement.
University management is a formidable enemy, with a long institutional memory and knowledge of how to combat student activism. The same goes for landlords, bosses, and the entire capitalist class. Our best weapon against this is a strong, democratic, organisation of students and workers with maximum participation of as many people as possible.
This was one of the weak points of the Lancaster rent strike, where in many cases student participation didn’t extend beyond a passive non-payment of rent rather than an active engagement with the campaign, and yet concessions were still gained. Imagine how much more can be won if we overcome the alienation that some students felt from the strategising and decision-making processes of the strike, and involve them actively in the campaign!
The successes of the Lancaster rent strike should inspire us to take the struggle forwards. The conclusion of the rent strike isn’t the end. It’s just the end of the beginning. From now we need to build on what we have achieved so far. We have enormous strengths – clearly the student body at Lancaster is ready and willing to take a stand against being made to pay for the crisis of capitalism exposed by the pandemic.
So let’s raise our sights, beyond simply a rent reduction, and towards free education for all, which is a basic right. And let’s discuss seriously how to make this a reality, through linking up with students and workers around the country, and fighting for socialism.
Lancaster Marxist Society