Over 1200 students at Bristol are withholding rent until the University adequately provides for them. Simon Cobb, via Wikimedia Commons

As the number of new coronavirus cases per day continues to rise, the quality of the student experience in halls continues to decrease. Students across the country, particularly in the North where cases are rising the most sharply, are facing isolation with inadequate access to food supplies and well-being support. Many students signed accommodation contracts with the expectation that they would receive some form of ‘blended learning’, but now feel that universities have been deceptive about how much in-person teaching they can actually deliver. It is difficult to not feel especially sympathetic towards first-year students who are facing these conditions after having experienced great uncertainty in the summer over the A-level fiasco.

A bold and resolute ‘Cut the Rent’ Campaign at the University of Bristol is demanding better for the students cooped up in Bristol’s student accommodation blocks. Over 1,200 students at the University are choosing to withhold their rent until the University can meet their demands. These demands include the improved provision of food and sanitary products, regular mental health check-ins, transparency around security powers and access to appropriate outdoor spaces within their halls. The campaign is also demanding that there should be no repercussions for rent strikers, no-penalty contract releases, and deposit refunds for anyone who wishes to move out of halls, as well as a 30% cut to rent for the whole year for those who decide to stay in halls. At the time of writing, the campaign has achieved tangible and material wins regarding the majority of these demands, and is involved in an on-going discussion with University senior management in order to secure the no-penalty contract releases and 30% rent deductions. A similar campaign at the University of Manchester has seen over 200 students sign up to its rent strike, which is demanding a 40% rent reduction.

“...it is likely that only collective action and student intervention will protect students at Cambridge from the misery of poorly managed self-isolation support.”

It is imperative that we, as students at the University of Cambridge, stand in solidarity with students striking at Bristol and Manchester. As recent events at Homerton College have demonstrated, our university is also feeling the throes of the second wave of the pandemic. Isolating students in Cambridge are facing related concerns to those at Bristol and Manchester regarding the provision of food, with huge variations at different colleges, and some students left trying to figure out how to cook a full meal in a gyp, while others are having to pay £10 a day for their isolation food boxes. If the situation continues to deteriorate, it is likely that only collective action and student intervention will protect students at Cambridge from the misery of poorly managed self-isolation support. It is possible however, that the national press coverage which the Bristol and Manchester campaigns have managed to generate has rung alarm bells for university management teams across the country, including here at Cambridge, spurring them to take greater and more considered actions regarding self-isolation support. If this is the case, then we are indebted to these students who have taken on the potential personal and legal risks of participating in a rent strike. We can express our support to the strikers at Bristol and Manchester with gestures which are small yet impactful — whether that’s following their campaigns on social media, or bringing up their work in conversations concerning these issues.

“...students are not just campaigning for financial savings...but are resisting the forces of neoliberal marketisation.”

It is important to remember that student rent has been an issue since before the pandemic, and will continue to be an issue long after the worst of the pandemic is over. Students who were at Cambridge during the last academic year may remember the Murray Edwards Student Collective taking action against their college, which has one of the highest rent prices in Cambridge. ‘Cut the Rent’ campaigns have been finding success since 2016, when over 1,000 rent-striking students at UCL won £1.5 million in concessions in the form of compensation, bursaries and rent cuts. In both of these instances, as with the majority of student rent strikes, students are not just campaigning for financial savings for a small group of student tenants, but are resisting the forces of neoliberal marketisation which have taken a strong hold over universities over the past ten years. This marketisation has turned universities into businesses and students into consumers, and many believe that this has reduced the effectiveness and quality of university teaching, with universities more focused on public relations and quantifiable assessments which help them climb league tables, rather than the material realities of their students and staff. Often these campaigns, such as the Murray Edwards Student Collective who draw on data from a 2018 survey on rent in their college, also make cogent links between student rent and mental health, stating that the financial strain of high student rent causes distress to well-being and negatively affects academic performance.


Mountain View

Students turn to private renting as the future of life in college grows uncertain

Ten years after the Millbank riot of 2010, a protest against higher education reforms which included the tripling of fees and the reducing of government subsidies to universities, students are still finding ways in which to revolt against the neoliberal university system. Rent strikes have proven to be an effective method and there is no doubt that it is a strategy which will be employed by students, in Cambridge and elsewhere, over and over again. It is important that these future campaigns learn from the success of the Bristol rent strike, from their sheer persistence and focus on collective, cooperative action. It is also vital that these future campaigns stay connected to, and work collaboratively with, previous activists across the country who have laid the foundations for carrying out successful rent strike campaigns.