In her first year at the University of Bristol, Saranya Thambirajah has had little contact time for her politics course — but plenty of hands-on experience mobilising protests and organising direct action against the institution’s pandemic response. 

The 19-year-old Londoner is one of the organisers of the 1,800 students on rent strike at the university. Forced into a fortnight of isolation after catching the virus last term, she found she was not so alone when it came to the frustrations she felt towards the university. Now she is part of a growing movement of students across the UK seeking to ensure that they don’t become an afterthought in a higher education system scrambling to cope with waves of lockdown and social distancing.

Thambirajah is now back home, unable to return to university and halfway through a second term of studying without any in-person contact with her tutors. “I barely even know anyone on my course — they’re all just people on a computer screen,” she says.

Despite the impact of the pandemic on teaching, social life, and mental and physical health, students are having to fight for the most basic rent reductions to university-owned accommodation; the cheapest room offered by the university costs £4,300 a year in rent. And all the while they are paying more than £9,000 in tuition fees every year.

Rent strikes at the University of Bristol
The protests are part of a wider campaign by students © Saranya Thambirajah

As the second term continues, with students isolated at home, the long-term problems facing higher education are becoming all too apparent. Weighed down by steep tuition fees, and at a time of acute economic hardship for young adults, students are increasingly questioning the running of universities that many see as having been all but turned into businesses.

“All these rent strikes started as a response to the mishandling of the pandemic,” says Thambirajah. “But I think now it’s just exposing a lot of issues and flaws with the university systems that were already there.”

When I left university in 2017, my generation wasn’t exactly awash with optimism for the future. Setting to one side issues such as Brexit, which most students were passionately against, or climate change, more practical problems presented themselves: entry-level jobs that required years of experience; the impossibility of saving for the future; a rental market that feels less like a stepping stone towards the property ladder than a punishment for being born several decades too late. 

Then, as now, student debt was regarded as so astronomical, and the interest rates applied to it so arcane, that it was better to ignore it and wait for it to be written off. Four years later, logging on to my student loan balance after a one-year post-graduate degree, the figure has ballooned to nearly £60,000. Watching these sums spiral is bad enough when you’ve enjoyed your university years. It is all the harder to accept for a cohort confined to their rooms and taught over Zoom.

Little wonder that dissatisfaction with the higher education experience is not confined to Bristol; rent strikes have sprung up at more than 50 UK universities since the beginning of the academic year, with different campaigns working together to maximise their impact. 

A protesting student at the University of Manchester © Mattie Shannon

The immediate priority of the group in Bristol is to ensure that students are granted rebates on their housing costs so far, whether or not individuals returned in the new year. Organisers want all students to get a 30 per cent reduction in rent for the full academic year, to recognise the disruption to their education and accommodation.

The administration views the situation differently. Robert Kerse, the university’s chief operating officer, says that students living in residences will have received about a 25 per cent rebate over the course of the year, and points to bursaries set up for those with no other accommodation available. While he appreciates this has been “a particularly difficult” time for students, he adds, “we believe the university has gone above and beyond to provide support during this stressful and challenging period”.

After a disastrous start to the autumn term when universities and the government encouraged anyone who could safely head to their halls to do so — causing a surge in cases and forcing many halls into quarantine — students have so far this year been discouraged from returning to campus. 

A phased return to face-to-face teaching is reportedly being planned for March, but official guidance still states that, with the exception of courses such as medicine and veterinary science, students “should remain where they are wherever possible”.

“It definitely feels like students have been forgotten,” says Louis Holmes, another first-year Bristol undergraduate participating in the strike.

University Students life

It is not just in England that students are up in arms. More than 50 US colleges, including George Washington University and NYU, face lawsuits from students seeking compensation for amenities closed during the pandemic. Last month, Paris’s Left Bank saw a series of demonstrations drawing attention to poverty and declining mental health at universities. In Scotland, meanwhile, where education policy is handled by the devolved government, students in Glasgow protested against their treatment by erecting a fence around their vice-principal’s lodgings.

Back in December, Thambirajah and a few others in Bristol began making WhatsApp groups to co-ordinate students’ efforts. After getting in touch with the original organisers of the Rent Strike Now network, which began as a series of demonstrations in response to housing conditions at University College London in 2015, they have now inherited their website and social media channels.

The network hosted its first national rally online in January, with former shadow chancellor John McDonnell joining students, other Labour MPs and Jo Grady, University and College Union general secretary, to promote the rent strikes and call on the government to support students.

The Department for Education has allocated £70m in student support funds since December, aimed at covering living costs for those hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic. Having been encouraged to return to campus in the autumn, then subsequently blamed for a surge in infections in university towns, students have yet to be persuaded by government interventions.

“One minute we’re expected to help the recession by contributing to the economy by going out, the next minute we’re being scapegoated for a rise in cases because we did exactly what they told us to do,” says Mattie Shannon, a final year student in disaster management at the University of Manchester. In November, she joined a group of students in Manchester who moved into the empty Owens Park tower on the Fallowfield campus, occupying it as part of a campaign to secure rent reductions for the remainder of the academic year. Banners fluttered from the building’s windows and the occasional flare signalled the new residents’ refusal to leave.

Students occupy an empty tower on Manchester’s Fallowfield campus as part of their campaign to secure rent reductions © Mattie Shannon

The two-week occupation helped secure a 30 per cent rent reduction for September to January (worth about £12m to the university), and the Manchester rent strike is now pushing for a 100 per cent rebate for accommodation costs incurred in the months before students are able to return safely, plus further reductions for the rest of the semester because of the reduced facilities available.

Now in the final year of her course, Shannon recognises in the grievances of freshers issues that she also experienced when she first arrived at the university: rodents, burst pipes, damp. “So long as they still get their rent, they won’t make these improvements, which is why I think the rent strike is so vital — to show that we’re not always going to pay our rent.”

Withholding rent is a powerful statement for her generation. According to the Resolution Foundation, during the first lockdown 14 per cent of under-30s missed a rent or mortgage payment, compared with 1 per cent of those aged 70 and over.

“When the economy booms, market forces can drive up rents very rapidly,” says Chloe Timperley, author of Generation Rent, an investigation of the inequalities of the UK’s housing market, published last year. “But when the economy crashes, those same market forces are overridden by the right to collect rent, which prevents the rental market from quickly adjusting to the new fundamentals.”

Although the resulting financial difficulties affect both landlord and tenant, it is clearly the latter that is hit hardest. For Timperley, young people, and especially the captive audience of students, have become an “asset class” — possessions of landlords rather than customers on an equal footing. The result is a significant disparity in treatment based on wealth: bad practices fall on financially precarious demographics who, lacking the luxury of choice, are unable to challenge them. 

“Striking,” she says, “is a last resort against a system that effectively treats [students] like cash cows.”

A decade ago, students took to the streets to protest against plans to triple tuition fees in the UK to as much as £9,000 a year. Tens of thousands turned out amid rising tensions that saw 153 arrested on a single day of demonstrations in November 2010. The following month, the House of Commons approved the proposals by just 21 votes.

A tuition fee demonstation outside the Houses of Parliament in December, 2010 © FlickrVision

Polling suggests that the public has not since come round to the higher fees. A 2017 survey found that only 18 per cent of Britons supported the increase. Among 18 to 34-year-olds, it was 14 per cent. That year, Nick Clegg — the former Liberal Democrats leader and deputy prime minister, seen as complicit in a decision he had once vowed to oppose — lost his seat in the student-heavy constituency of Sheffield Hallam.

For the students participating in the rent strikes, tuition fees and accommodation costs are a reminder that what they believe should be available as a basic right now comes with a price tag. Almost all the students I speak to see the strikes as the inevitable product of an increasingly marketised higher education system.

“[They] wouldn’t have happened if universities weren’t run like businesses,” says Dot, a second-year linguistics student participating in the rent strike at the University of Cambridge. “If they weren’t run for profit, then they wouldn’t be at risk of folding if we weren’t here. And if they weren’t at risk of folding then they could have prioritised what would have been better for student and staff health.”

“You pay £27,000 to say you’ve got a degree,” adds Ben McGowan, a first-year student in Manchester. “It’s sort of just become a way to buy your way into a career.”

While the cost of university has never been higher — on average, tuition fees in England are second only to those in the US — the value of actually going seems to be at an all-time low. In September, Boris Johnson took aim at what he sees as a mismatch of supply and demand in young people’s qualifications. “We seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates,” the prime minister said, “and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want.”

A protest against lockdown measures at Manchester Metropolitan University . . . © Alamy Stock Photo
. . . and neighbouring University of Manchester students hold a minute’s silence in November in memory of a student who died on the campus during lockdown isolation © Joel Goodman/LNP

In recent years, the belief in the benefits of a steady increase in the proportion of university-educated adults, championed in the Blairite refrain of “education, education, education”, has come under criticism. Gavin Williamson, the current education secretary, dismissed that Labour government’s target for 50 per cent of young people to attend university as an “absurd mantra”. In a speech last summer, he said: “From now on, our mantra must be ‘further education, further education, further education’.”

Yet the shortages of construction workers, mechanics, engineers and IT experts identified by Johnson in September have been affected by the pandemic. The month that Johnson announced his plans, there were 332,000 fewer jobs across the country overall than there were a year before.

This story is focused on the UK but we would love to hear from readers around the world. Have you, or someone you are close to, found it difficult being a student during the pandemic? Tell us what has been the most challenging part in the comments below

“The crisis is unprecedented in many ways, but the long-term trends leading up to the crisis have definitely made us less prepared,” says Maja Gustafsson, a researcher at the Resolution Foundation and co-author of the think-tank’s latest “intergenerational audit”.

As Britain endures the biggest economic slump on record, unemployment is hitting 16 to 24-year-olds harder than any other age group, with a 13 per cent increase of young people out of work since the pandemic began. Poor prospects for young people in turn mean slower recovery for the country as a whole.

“The way to build back better is to ensure that we have a sustainable recovery,” says Gustafsson. “Sustainable economic growth just necessitates having all ages on board.”

For young people to be at odds with their government is hardly a new phenomenon, but the extent of my generation’s alienation may be unprecedented. The loss of these vital years elicits a range of reactions among my friends: anxiety, apathy, anger. The prospect of having to shoulder the financial burden of the pandemic despite little say in how it has been managed is overwhelming.

Faith in democracy is waning faster among young people than any other generation, while in the UK general elections of 2017 and 2019, it was age that denoted the biggest political divide. In 2019, the chance of voting Conservative increased by about 9 per cent with every decade added to a voter’s age; the chance of them voting Labour, conversely, decreased by 8 per cent. Not even in the landslide election of 1997 is Tony Blair estimated to have attracted more than half of the 18-34 vote, which Jeremy Corbyn did in 2019.

Only 20 MPs have so far signed a motion supporting the strikers and recognising the “appalling treatment” of students: little wonder that half as many 18 to 24-year-olds view the UK government response to Covid-19 positively compared with those over 50.

“The government has shown that young people aren’t their priority, and I think that’s something we always knew,” says Shannon. “But it has been made very clear in the last few months.”

Spurred by such profound political disenfranchisement and economic disparity, student leaders are hoping rent strikes are only the start of a change in the balance of power at universities. As they begin to secure changes, the appeal of direct action could prove enduring.

“It has probably been more educational than my politics degree,” says Bristol’s Holmes. “But I wish I didn’t have to do it.”

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