Zac Larkham, a student at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) recently exposed his university management for tracing his physical and online activities with the student rent strike movement last academic year. In a tweet thread about this scandal, Zac revealed 190 pages of records obtained via a subject access request, showing how SHU management had continually discussed and followed his whereabouts. 

Screenshots of emails showed that management had been monitoring and looking through Zac’s twitter feed trying to find information that could be used against him. They requested investigation into whether Zac had paid his rent, and how long his accommodation contract was. They were tracking his whereabouts on campus and followed Zac’s campaign for Student Union President.

The 190 pages also exposed the university for trying to identify students who were involved in the occupation of the SHU Cantor Building. They were asking security in the building if they overheard any names. Now, without evidence, Zac and another student have been slapped with £150 fines, for supposedly breaking a window which there is no evidence of, and threatened with suspension if they don’t pay up. Students are outraged and have rightly questioned the legality of much of the actions undertaken by SHU management. This shows that despite University management posturing that they were on the side of students during the pandemic, it is clear to see that they knew this was a battle with themselves on one side and students and staff on the other.


Sheffield Hallam Marxist society interviewed Zac, to hear his response to management’s actions. Zac pointed out some of the areas that SHU could have dedicated their time towards instead of spying on their own students. This included the fact that the Women in Tech society at SHU, found that students experienced 126 incidents of sexual harassment from September 2020 to April 2021. This includes incidents of stalking and a report of staff members making “jokes about porn and rape” towards a female student. Note that the real numbers are likely underestimated here, since the university doesn’t have its own formal reporting system for sexual harassment incidents.

Zac also highlighted past evidence of the university management engaging in ‘espionage’ against its own staff.  Students were asked to fill out a form to report (i.e. grass on) their own lecturers if they were striking during the 2018 UCU industrial action. 

Several lecturers have sent me emails expressing solidarity. The Hallam branch of the UCU also retweeted my tweet with a message of condemnation against the university

The rent strike movement at SHU was part of many other campaigns at universities across the country, instigated by the disgraceful treatment of students through the course of the pandemic by university management. The Tory government is to blame too, since they were responsible for allowing students from all over the country to flood into university accommodation in September. 

Students were forced to isolate for extended periods in cramped halls, at high risk of contracting covid, whilst most of the university courses were all online. Students’ mental health was already in crisis before the pandemic, but this was exacerbated further by mistreatment from the top. From the start of term till the end of October 2020, there were 8 suicides among students, amounting to one per week. Furthermore, despite experiencing a notably worse university experience than previous years, most students were still expected to take on £9250 in tuition fee debt for the year.

The rent strike campaigns across the country put pressure on university management and landlord companies into various concessions. Zac estimates that the rent strike at SHU will have cost the university somewhere in the region of £6m, as student tenants were partially compensated.

In Manchester, students won 30% off their rent for the first term, and 10% off for the following term. Unite Students, the largest private student accommodation provider in the country, offered its tenants a 50% rent reduction for the entire year. This shows what can be achieved when students are able to organise and take collective action. The Manchester victory came through a rent strike, and Unite Students simply jumped the gun and offered the reduction in fear of what would happen if they didn’t. 

The SHU Marxist Society expresses its full solidarity with Zac, and everyone who participated in the rent strike movement at SHU and all over the UK last year. Universities are increasingly becoming places of struggle. UCU is currently balloting for strike action. Scandals like this show precisely why, as students and workers, we must unite and prepare ourselves against the landlords, capitalists and university management by mobilising and organising. If you can, find and join your local university Marxist society, and join the fight for socialism!

 Sheffield Hallam Marxists

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