The pandemic has exposed the deep inequality and contradiction that underpins capitalist society. In particular, – the scandals of landlordism and marketised higher education. This has led to a deep anger amongst the youth (a very large proportion of whom are private tenants) towards landlords.
Last year, we witnessed the crushing financial impact of the pandemic on many young and working class households. The number of private renters receiving Universal Credit doubled, to half, since the start of the pandemic (November 2020) – and these benefits can scarcely cover even basic rent in many towns and cities across Britain.
In the early stages of the crisis, the Tories intervened by introducing a temporary eviction ban, but those guarantees have long since expired.
According to a government report from December 2020, one in five private renters (over 700,000 households) were either in arrears or likely to fall into arrears in the next three months.
As such, we have seen a significant growth in evictions: according to The Big Issue, a new household was made homeless every three and a half hours in the first quarter of 2021. These figures are only likely to increase over the coming months.
Meanwhile, student renters have received scandalous treatment by universities and private landlords over the past year. The usual debt is bad enough, but this year was a particularly bad deal financially: over £9000 for online lectures and a handful of virtual group sessions, and thousands more shelled out in rent for rooms which occupants could not leave for large swathes of the year. Support for isolating students, where it existed, was often deeply inadequate.
Many students, if the choice had been offered, would have chosen to stay in their hometowns. However, with the promise of blended learning, which never came to pass, students were forced back into renting in their University cities.
During the last academic year, most universities encouraged students to return to campus wherever possible. However, many did not have the necessary provisions to support isolating households during the inevitable outbreaks of COVID-19. Instead of helping students, they blamed them – soon leading to increasingly radical opposition across the country that culminated in rent strikes.
Students at the University of Manchester led the way with their rent strike, achieving a temporary rent reduction worth millions of pounds thanks to their militant campaign. It is no coincidence that this is the very same university which literally fenced their students into their accommodation on the first day of the national lockdown in November 2020.
The large private landlords and the senior university management agree on the key points. This is because they both are only interested in making as much money possible at the expense of the students’ health and safety.
The true cause of the crisis
During the post-war period the Labour government willingly conceded mass social housing and free tuition and maintenance grants for students, this era of progressive reform under capitalism is long over in Britain.
The 70s brought this to a sharp end. Economic crisis was sparked by inflation and oil prices ( but the underlying contradiction was overproduction). This had wide reaching consequences, with Thatcher’s government ramping up privatisation.
In 1998, the Blair government introduced tuition fees, demonstrating a clear move towards the marketisation of higher education. The encroachment of capital in these key areas – housing and education – has been the bane of students and workers ever since.
Since then, the gap between university management and staff has grown larger. Vice Chancellors of British universities are generally paid hundreds of thousands of pounds, often supplemented by other forms of income. Meanwhile, front-line staff are often employed on zero-hours contracts and are facing waves of redundancies up and down the country.
The consequence of these regressive trends was witnessed in the UCU strikes of early last year, unfortunately disrupted by the pandemic, and the mass student rent strikes of the following academic year.
We have also witnessed a growing radicalism amongst private tenants, reflected in the rapid emergence of housing-focused unions such as Acorn. All of these signify a notable development in militancy – and thus the growing crisis amongst the youth. The pandemic has intensified these trends, and will continue to do so over the coming months.
The crisis continues
The issues faced by the youth, which have only increased in severity over the past year, are far from resolved. Above all, private landlords continue to suck as much cash out of their young tenants as they can. Many landlords last year forced students to pay rent for rooms that they had vacated due to the pandemic cutting short the summer term.
This summer, they are charging exorbitant rates to those overstaying their tenancy agreement due to COVID-19 isolation – effectively forcing many to go back home and risk infecting their friends and family. For example, an isolating student in Leeds reported being charged thousands of pounds in order to stay for a handful of extra days.
Meanwhile, the universities continue to present the threat of staff layoffs and continued online learning. As students are forced to pay through the roof for a limited experience, more questions will be asked: where is all the money going?
The situation with students is a reflection of the wider crisis in society. Hundreds of thousands of private tenants will continue to be priced out of major cities every year, and suffer under poor housing conditions which many landlords refuse to improve.
Therefore the crisis amongst the youth is far from over. And even when the virus ebbs from its present peak amongst young people, the scene will be irreversibly changed. And as the bosses attempt to make the workers and students pay for the consequences of the pandemic, it will be clearer than ever that capitalism is at the root of this crisis. Workers and students must unite their campaigns and fight for the overthrow of this rotten system!