Meet the student rent strikers fighting back and refusing to pay rent in January

‘There is no way the uni was 100 per cent honest’

Pissed off with conditions in halls, and at feeling unsupported and lured back to uni on false promises, thousands of students have refused to pay millions of pounds in rent this term – an unprecedented number.

Now at the end of a tumultuous term, rent strikers have won various rent reductions from their unis, and a network has spread beyond Manchester and Bristol.

They’re gearing up across the country to withhold money next term and try and force change from their uni.

It’s a story of students choosing not to be cash cows, and to push back against the forces they feel have ruined a term.

‘There is no way they were 100 per cent honest’

Police have barged into Hamish Chapman’s Bristol halls twice since he moved in, apparently for no reason.

When we talk, his throat is husky from the lingering effects of Covid, which he picked up shortly after arriving at uni. During his isolation in his Hiatt Baker room, Hamish said he received only two emails from the uni and didn’t feel well supported.

This all happened after Hamish had signed up to the rent strike, but has only strengthened his resolve.

Hamish didn’t come to uni determined to strike and get involved in activism – he just came to it through social media. “I was really, really unhappy,” says Hamish. “I looked at the list of the demands and thought, yeah, this is fairly reasonable.”

Nearly all of the 20 people he shares a flat with are withholding rent this term. Those who didn’t sign up in time are joining in January, when the strike continues. As Covid ripped through halls, Hamish says students felt lured back and more and more people signed up. All in all, over 1400 Bristol students are withholding rent – its organisers think it’s the biggest student rent strike there has been.

Despite the uni agreeing that strikers wouldn’t face any penalties, Hamish gets the impression they’re pushing back. Bursary threat – which they U-turned on. Offer of rent reduction, but only for people who weren’t on rent strike.

“The frustration is a common experience among everyone here. We’re angry for pretty much the same reasons. We’re pissed off at the uni and pissed off at the government,” he says.

“There is no way they were 100 per cent honest about the hybrid in-person, online system, about what facilities will be available.”

The strike has won concessions from the uni – there will be a 30 per cent rent reduction for the seven-week staggered return period, and a 10-day rent rebate after teaching was moved online for this week. Students will also be able to cancel their halls tenancy without being financially penalised.

“We believe we have gone above and beyond to provide to support to students during this stressful and challenging period,” Robert Kerse, Bristol’s Chief Operating Officer told The Tab.

He added that the uni did not make any profit on halls, and that it has spent £6.5 million on additional support for students this term.

“We have consistently done right by our students, acting reasonably and providing rental rebates when education has been moved wholly online as part of the government’s efforts to tackle the spread of Covid-19,” Kerse added.

Bristol’s rent strikers say that’s not enough, and as we speak, Hamish is preparing to relaunch the strike in January.

‘I didn’t think I’d be sat in my room ready to withhold rent’

Sussex fresher Liam isn’t the classic activist student you’d picture in your head – he’s not been at the forefront of years of UCU strikes, and he admits he’s surprised to find himself involved in a rent strike.

“I didn’t think three, four months ago I’d be sat in my room ready to withhold my rent,” he says from his Stanmer Court halls. But after finding like-minded people on social media, he’s now one of 250 Sussex students who have signed up to withhold rent from the uni in January.

In the first 24 hours of launching the strike, 198 students signed up, which Liam thinks is “quite telling of the student mood.” The strikers want the uni to reduce halls rent by 40 per cent for the entire year, but also to ensure there are no Covid job cuts among uni staff. “We do deserve better, it’s certainly quite miserable,” Liam says.

Actually withholding rent is new for Liam, and his resolve is tempered with a slight apprehension. “It isn’t an easy thing to do, it really isn’t,” he says.

One of the strikers’ demands is that none of them get in trouble for not paying, but they haven’t managed to get the uni to negotiate yet.

Sussex really isn’t happy about the rent strike. “We are extremely disappointed that the Students’ Union is encouraging students to engage in a rent strike at a time when our staff right across the University continue to do all they can to ensure that our students’ education can continue during this very challenging time,” a spokesperson told The Tab.

Despite that, Liam feels he has no other choice. “We believe the only option is to withhold rent in order to bring the university into dialogue with our students”, he says.

“During this pandemic, I think feelings have become quite intense, and I think there’s been a lack of support,

He sees it not just as a way to be financially compensated, but as a means of “regaining a sense of community and togetherness, without sounding too cliche.”

In response, the university told The Tab that maintenance is “managed in a timely fashion”, that students self-isolating receive a free daily hot meal, and that “hundreds of University staff such as porters, cleaners, receptionists, delivery staff and so many of our student services teams behind the scenes have been working tirelessly to ensure that living on campus has been possible during the pandemic.”

‘We were forced to come back and pay increased rents’

The movement has even spread to Oxford. The rent strikers we spoke to weren’t willing to be named for fear of retribution from the uni.

A condition of pretty much every rent strike is that strikers don’t face any disciplinary action – something the Oxford strikers haven’t won yet.

But Oxford – everything’s dreamy right? Well. Rents in colleges have increased this year – four per cent at Christ Church and seven per cent at Balliol, for example.

The strikers highlight how rich the unis already are, and how badly rent increases during a pandemic have gone down against that backdrop. “Colleges deliberately raised rents when we were going to be forced back. We the students are carrying the burden of maintaining and expanding the hundreds of millions of pounds in college endowments,” they say.

“I’m mad because the colleges want it to be business as normal, but it’s not. If you force students to come back just to have them sit in their rooms watching virtual lectures and classes, only to raise the rent even more than usual to cover your losses, that tells me the uni doesn’t care about students – it cares about profits.”

‘This is just one step towards students realising the power they have’

At Goldsmiths, Lars Ohrvik-Stott is part of the 100-strong rent strike, who are after a 50 per cent rent reduction. Like other strikes, the Goldsmiths group has a laundry list of supplementary demands – they want action to be taken against students who sexually assault others in halls, and for the uni to provide more resources for mental health services.

As a second year, Lars won’t be directly withholding rent. But he feels it’s important to lend his experience of coordinating campus activism – he’s been involved in most of the major protests over the last few years – to those who are.

It’s ambitious, but Lars says “this is just one step towards students realising the power they have”.

“We need to get past this idea that we can’t do anything without the approval of senior management teams.”

Goldsmiths says it has contacted every student living in halls over the past two weeks to check in on them, and that it has launched a new “report and support” website to allow for anonymous reporting of sexual assault. “At every stage of the pandemic we have done everything we can to support our students in halls across a range of issues,” a spokesperson said.

‘Universities have to recognise that they’ve failed their duty of care’

Cast your mind back before the Manchester Met lockdown, and before all the signs in the windows, and you might remember students in Scotland were some of the first trapped inside. Students at Glasgow’s Murano halls – who were told to wash clothes in baths and showers – banded together and won a month’s rent rebate.

From that rent strike, the momentum evolved into something else – a student tenants’ union. It sounds boring – but it’s students banding together to stick up for themselves and hold the uni accountable. David Elam wasn’t involved in the rent strike, but is organising the students tenants’ union. Over 100 students have signed up so far.

“We’ve got a duty of care for each other, because the university itself has failed in its duty of care for students.”

A further rent strike, naturally, is on the cards if the return to uni in January is staggered.

David highlights something that comes up time and time again with every rent striker I speak to; this isn’t just about grotty halls, it’s about the bad deal students have been forced to accept – underfunded mental health services, bad communication from unis during the pandemic, and suspicion of senior management motives.

Those problems were rampant before Covid, David argues, and they’ll be around after. “Everyone’s gonna get vaccinated and all these problems are going to magically disappear? No. There’s going to be a period where universities have to recognise that they’ve failed their duty of care. And that they have to fundamentally change the systems in place.”

It’s been 10 years since widespread student protests over tuition fee refunds, which, as everyone paying £9,250 for Zoom university will have noticed, couldn’t stop the grinding momentum of politics. But this generation of rent strikers and student protestors are extracting victories. While universities may be “extremely disappointed” the strikes are happening, rent is coming back into students’ pockets.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

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

If the government wants me to stagger my return to uni, it can pay my rent first

‘It made me feel worse’: Inside the struggle for mental health support at Manchester Uni