Voices from the rent strike’s virtual picket lines

A reflection of the thoughts and feelings of rent strikers

While many students away from campus have been offered reimbursements on their rent for the lockdown period, the University of Sussex rent strike remains a strong force. Both the Renters Union and the Sussex Students Union have voiced concerns for students still on campus, who have been left out of the policy. It has been apparent since the beginning that the strike is about more than money and the value of university life, but a wider movement surrounding student’s concerns, hopes and anxieties that go way beyond the pandemic. Speaking to those involved, there are many themes that run through the thoughts and feelings of strikers. After speaking to a few of them, a clear picture emerges that the strike holds a diverse array of thoughts and opinions, while also common frustrations were apparent. 

From speaking to many strikers an insight into the opinions, hopes and ideas of what people feel about university life is formed, as well as their lives beyond it and the pandemic. While many said they have always felt a general sense of injustice, for others it was realisation of “how bad the university’s priorities were” which drew them to it. Many were drawn out of a sense of voicelessness and a strong feeling of concerns being ignored.

This was not just with larger student rights issues, but also with day-to-day maintenance issues with one striker stating issues were “continually ignored” as more and more problems with her accommodation began to mount. This voicelessness to many, turned the rent strike from a movement into a necessity, one organiser saying: “we have no choice to withhold our rent until such conversations can be had”, after expressing frustration about a lack of dialogue from the university. 

Within the voices of those spoken to, there was also a real recognition of the impact the pandemic has had on the university experience. What was most frustrating was not the pandemic itself, but the response given by the university and administration. Chiefly, it was the promise of face-to-face learning, that they thought had unnecessarily brought them back to campus. One striker felt the university’s representations gave a “distorted” view of what life back on campus would be like.

Almost everyone spoken to also had a real sense that mental health was being ignored. While some knew who to contact for mental health support, it was mostly first years who were confused about who they would get in touch with, and what the process was in seeking out this help. There were also stories of very long waiting-lists and lack of substantive support. 

As both the Renters Unions and the  Students Union, have began focussing on what have been described as heavy-handed campus security and police presence, many strikers were also asked whether they felt safe on campus. While the general feeling was relative safety, there was a sense of intimidation from the police presence especially. One striker had this to say about the issue: 

“They said I would have the full campus experience, which I didn’t because security patrolled campus like security guards: questioning groups of students minding their own business and knocking on our doors to check if we were breaking lockdown rules.” 

There are high hopes for the outcome of the rent strike and more so what some want it to represent. One hope shared by an organiser was to establish a level of “student and staff solidarity that continues beyond the pandemic”, while others wanted to work to make the world a better place to live, no matter if those changes were big or small. A few more just wanted to enjoy the rest of their time at university and create a career in spite of the pandemic. 

Listening to these opinions, there is a general mood about what the strike represents for everyone involved, as well as the broader motives of individuals for taking part. It is clear that there are still so many concerns to be addressed for the strike and its participants  that go way beyond the pandemic and university life. As with all things, it is evident that with the rent strike, there is more than meets the eye.