Why thousands of freshers across the UK are withholding millions of pounds in rent

‘Lots of us are thinking about dropping out. This year’s so hard mentally, academically and socially’

This year’s freshers have had the worst first year imaginable. They’re paying for rooms they can’t use and don’t feel safe or supported in, and they’re angry. Now, thousands of students across the country are taking part in rent strikes, demanding change from their universities.

At their last count, 1,300 are rent striking at Bristol University, which students estimate amounts to around £2 million in rent withheld. There are also at least 215 rent-striking students at Manchester University. Based on earlier figures, £307,000 is being withheld – but there are now more students striking, so the number is likely to be far higher. Both groups are asking for a rent reduction and increased standards of support, amongst other things. They’re made up of freshers, unable to meet face-to-face but organising themselves through group chats and social media.

There is a network of more student rent strikers around the country. The Tab spoke to the first-year organisers behind the rent strikes at Bristol and Manchester unis, to find out why they’re striking:

‘I haven’t heard from mental health support all term’

It has been reported that at least one university student has died every week since the start of term. Mental health campaigners have called for university to be moved entirely online next semester, with some branding bringing students back this term as “reckless”.

The Manchester rent strike organiser specifically highlights the death of Finn Kitson last month as something “hugely tragic and really upsetting”, but says “we’ve not even heard from the uni about it, and that’s made a lot of people angry and scared.”

Many people the Bristol rent strike organiser knows are considering dropping out. She tells The Tab: “It’s so hard for us, mentally, academically and socially. They just feel like it’s too much for them, we aren’t getting the support we need to get through this time.” Freshers are in states of “stress and anxiety, both in terms of mental health and financial support.”

via SWNS

In Bristol, the organiser says mental health check-ins just aren’t happening. She tells me: “I haven’t heard from mental health support once in the entire time I’ve been here.” (The university told The Tab accommodation fees go towards “24/7 pastoral and wellbeing support,” including additional support for isolating students.)

Bristol students who test positive for coronavirus are supposed to be contacted by the university’s mental health support teams, but she says she wasn’t contacted at all. Nor were many others she knows, including two of her flatmates who are under the university’s disability service for their mental health. “Although they’re trying to contact everyone, so many people are slipping through the gaps,” she says.

‘We feel massively unsupported’

Surging cases of coronavirus at UK unis have forced many students to isolate with flatmates they barely know, with some entire blocks of halls being placed under lockdown and students saying they felt “like hamsters in a cage“. As well as feeling they generally lack support, students feel there isn’t enough help for those who have to self-isolate.

The Bristol organiser tested positive for coronavirus, so isolated. The university is providing isolating freshers with free food boxes, but she says many of these were delivered to the wrong flats, or left in “communal areas” for others to “rifle through”. She also says the boxes do not cater to religious or dietary requirements: Her housemate is allergic to peanuts, but in the flat’s food boxes they were given “12 peanut butters, and lots of nut bars, despite [the uni] knowing about the allergy”. She says there have been similar issues with coeliacs getting non-gluten free boxes, and students who follow halal diets not being catered for.

The Manchester organiser also had to isolate, after four flatmates tested positive for coronavirus. She says they received little support from the uni, other than a box of food that arrived the day before they came out of isolation.

She says there was a point when “every flat I knew was isolating” in “a bizarre scenario”, where some students had to wash clothes in their sinks, were unable to get food, and otherwise felt “massively unsupported”. (Manchester University has said they have “in place a comprehensive support package for all students who are self-isolating”, and “continue to provide support for all students in our halls of residence”.)

via SWNS

‘Being at uni feels like worse than being at home’

The Manchester organiser says she’s had no in-person teaching at all this semester, and says “being at uni feels like worse than being at home”.

“We’re paying to be at uni, have access to less things and have a worse experience,” she says. Her halls room has bad WiFi, no access to a printer and a small desk, and it would be far easier for her to work at home. There are other issues with online learning, such as lecturers still not being able to properly to use Zoom.

One of her friends studies music, and hasn’t been able to go into the studios she needs to practice in. She says she’s had to move home in order to properly do her course, whilst still paying rent for an unused room in Manchester.

It’s a similar story in Bristol, where the organiser I spoke to has four hours of in-person teaching a month: “The rest of it is online, so I could have done my degree from home. I don’t need to be in Bristol. We’re not getting the blended learning we were promised.”

The amount of blended learning students actually receive varies massively depending on their degree, but “there’s no need for the vast majority of students to be here.”

You can still go into the library for a handful of hours a week, but it’s just not the same – and students say “if you can’t get access to the facilities you’re paying for, there’s not much point in you being here.”

‘It’s a completely different experience, I would have just stayed at home’

The Bristol organiser says that coming to uni, she “knew it wouldn’t be the classic university experience and we all accepted that,” but feels freshers weren’t aware of just “how hard would be for students”, especially to socialise and meet people beyond their flatmates. She has a large flat and gets on with her housemates, but it’s a different story for many other freshers, including some whose household bubbles are as small as four. “You can’t talk to people from your course, you can’t talk to people from societies, it’s a completely different experience,” she says.

If she’d known what this term would be like, she says she “would have done the first term online,” and many of her fellow freshers have said the same.

The Manchester rent strike organiser agrees: “If I’d known it would be like this I wouldn’t have come, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way.” Now they’re here, though, students are in a difficult situation: “What do we do? Do we just go home and wait for a year?”

via SWNS

‘It’s so hard for people to get the money together for uni’

Both Manchester and Bristol rent strikers are demanding a rent reduction, as well as no-penalty release clauses for those wishing to drop out or move back home. The financial aspect of university is something many students struggle with ordinarily, but is perhaps harder this year.

Now, of course, lockdown means students around the country are being urged to stay at university – but there are “great financial implications of staying,” the Bristol rent striker tells me. Lockdown means “students who were planning on financing themselves through uni can’t access jobs, nowhere’s hiring at the moment. If people were being financed by family members, they might be on furlough. It’s so hard for people to collate this money together.”

The Manchester organiser says she took a year out after school, “working really really hard to be able to afford my rent, but now there’s no reason for me to be there.” She says the way this year has panned out feels “disheartening” after all that.

More details of the strikes can be found on the Bristol rent strike Twitter and Instagram; and the UoM rent strike Twitter and Instagram.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “The health and wellbeing of all our students is very important to us. Our staff have been working tirelessly over the last few weeks to support those who are self-isolating in what remains a very difficult and challenging situation for everyone.

“We are sorry to hear about the issues raised by Cut the Rent, but we do have clear processes in place for students to get in touch if they have any problems, questions or concerns and we will do our upmost to resolve these as quickly as possible. The majority of feedback from students on the additional measures we have put in place has been positive.

“We have always been clear about our plan to offer a blend of online and in-person teaching. This blended learning provision has been created to ensure students can still continue with their studies online if they are self-isolating or choose not to come to Bristol.

“We are continuing to support all students who have elected to live in our halls of residence this year. This will continue throughout the forthcoming lockdown, alongside in-person teaching, as we continue to follow Government advice.

“The Government has written to all students asking them to stay at university and minimise the spread of the virus. With this in mind, we do not plan to offer a rent rebate at this point in time, however we will continue to monitor the situation closely and will act reasonably, balancing all interests like we did in the summer term, and review our position if the national picture and advice changes significantly.

“We do not make a profit from student rent and all accommodation fees are used for operating, maintaining, and improving the residences. This includes 24/7 pastoral and wellbeing support. It is costing significantly more to operate our halls this year, due to later arrival dates, increased security and the additional support offered to students who are self-isolating, who we are providing with cleaning supplies, laundry services and free food boxes.

“Although students are facing some necessary restrictions to safeguard their health and the health of others, we have been as flexible as possible and believe we’ve gone above and beyond to provide support.”

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We fully understand that these are challenging and difficult times for all our students, especially those who are self-isolating in university accommodation, and we are doing all we can to support them.

“Our students – subject to their course requirements – have an informed choice as to whether to study in person in Manchester or remotely. The UK Government advice for Greater Manchester is that students are strongly encouraged to remain in their current accommodation and not return to their family home or other residential accommodation.

“If in exceptional circumstances students wish to return home for a period and no longer require their University accommodation, we will work with them to make sure they can safely leave the campus. Details of how to do this were emailed to all halls residents on 9 October 2020.

“We have put in place a comprehensive support package for all students who are self-isolating, which includes a partnership with a major food retailer, delivery of parcels, wellbeing support, and assistance with practical matters such as arranging for laundry and prescription medicines. All students have been sent this information which includes clear guidance on the circumstances under which they are able to leave their accommodation whilst self-isolating.

“We continue to provide support for all students in our halls of residence, and students can contact their local ResLife team for help and advice, at any time.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.

You matter.

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Stock feature image via SWNS