Thousands of students threaten to withhold rent at over 30 unis in historic rent strike

Rent strike organisers have seen a ‘significant increase’ in sign ups over the past few days

Over three thousand students are refusing to part ways with their second-semester rent in the largest rent strike in 40 years, spanning across 31 universities, with three more uni campaigns set up in the last 24 hours alone.

Rent strike organisers said they’ve seen a “significant increase” in sign-ups since the New Year, with students seething over fresh government guidance telling them not to return to uni yet still having to cover the costs of rent. The University of Warwick based rent strike had 400 students pledge to withhold rent in less than a day.

“There’s a lot of anger,” says Liam*, one of the organisers behind the University of Sussex Rent Strike, which was set up in early December. “The only way to bring the university into dialogue with us was a rent strike. We’re not even allowed on campus!” Liam, like thousands of other students, believes students have been mistreated by their unis this year and, to top it all off, are now being made to pay for student halls and houses they’re not even living in. So he’s had enough. When he got involved with Sussex Rent Strike, he was angry. But now, he’s hopeful.

“We’ve had 350 sign ups since we launched in December and we got 198 in our first day, as well as a significant increase in the last couple of days.” The Sussex Rent Strike has a few clear demands, including a 40 per cent reduction in rent for the entire academic year and the ability to exit a contract without penalty. These demands are echoed by pretty much every student rent strike group. Most groups request a reduction in rent between 30 and 50 per cent and, with another national lockdown looming, the ability to dash out of a contract without a hefty fine.

Manchester students during the rent strike occupation last term

The total number of universities taking part in rent strikes has increased from around 20 to 31 since early December, as students realise their return to university is looking further and further away, yet their rent due date looming closer and closer. “Students across campus have slowly been coming to grips with the growing severity of our situation,” says Asmaa, a Rent Strike Warwick organiser. “Discussions around the extortionate and unjustifiable rent fees came to a head towards the end of the first term, when students started to come together to organise a rent strikers’ group.” But it’s reaching a peak now because, as Asmaa puts it, “timing is huge”.

The timing seems to be right now because uni students are reaching their boiling point. Emerson, an organiser behind the London based rent strike covering University of London intercollegiate halls, said: “People are furious. We’ve been away already for the Christmas holidays, and now they expect us to pay for January.”

Emerson is one of ten organisers who heads up the UoL rent strike. He says they’ve seen a “huge uptake” in students signing up to the rent strike in recent weeks. “There’s been no persuasion needed, people are so angry. The uni has put profit and extracting money over students’ – often vulnerable students’ – welfare. So we haven’t had to persuade people so sign up.” But he admits the one thing which does require a little persuasion: legality.

Students fear that participating in a rent strike will end up in eviction, or even an academic penalty from the university. They don’t want the hassle. But luckily rent strikers, who are students themselves, know who they’re dealing with. Strike groups produce resources for students to read, usually presented in aesthetically pleasing Instagram tiles or accessible through their Linktree profiles, to prove to students that rent striking isn’t as scary as it seems. “We’ve done lots and lots of research,” Juno*, an organiser for the King’s College London’s rent strike, told The Tab. “We’ve been reading FOIs, consulting with past strikers and social justice workers and networking with other strikers across the country to create a kind of hive mind within which we can share information!”

And they’re not the only ones. Louis, an organiser for Bristol Rent Strike, has been on campus for just four months. It’s his first time living away from home and he was initially a bit “wary” about joining the rent strike. “But we have seasoned student activists and people who have done rent strikes in the past – we’ve had a lot of advice and support in that regard.”

Some student rent strike organisers have passion for their cause because they feel they are doing what is right. Some, as Louis said, are seasoned activists. But for others, it’s more than that. “People are struggling,” Louis told The Tab. “It’s not even that people are often that politically motivated, I know a lot of students that are struggling financially – we’ve been in various stages of lockdown for almost a year at this point. And those students who would rely on part-time jobs in cafés and such aren’t able to do that anymore.”

This struggle is exacerbated if, in the common curse of the Student Finance monkey paw, your loan doesn’t cover your rent. Something which is all too familiar for any student living in London. “I don’t know a single person whose loan covers their rent,” Emerson told The Tab. “It’s a disgrace. And it’s impossible to find jobs in the first place, but also students might not want to be forced into getting a job because of their health. We’re pushed into dangerous public facing jobs to support ourselves, and now we can’t even get them.”

Regardless of the motivation, all organisers stress the most important part of rent striking: power in numbers. Legally, it’s less risky, and provides safety to the students who do withhold rent, but it’s also more effective. Bristol and Manchester, the two universities which paid out actual rent rebates as a result of strike action last term, had over 2,000 students involved in the rent strike between them. And while other universities are just starting out, the wins at Bristol and Manchester have given them faith it can be attained elsewhere. Liam, organiser for Sussex Rent Strike, says: “We’re a growing movement, we’ve seen what’s happened at other universities. We can pull it off here.”

According to numbers provided by rent strike campaigns for Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester, UoL, Sussex, and KCL, 3,095 students are signed up to rent strike. And that’s just a handful of the 31 unis taking part.

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