Over 150 students at Queen Mary have pledged to withhold their rent next term. They join the largest student strike movement for decades, in which students across the nation are demanding financial compensation from their institutions for the conditions students are under this academic year.
The movement is comprised of students from 20+ other universities that also plan to commence a rent strike in January, including Bristol, Sussex, UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, York, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Edinburgh, UAL, Goldsmiths, Plymouth, Newcastle and LSE.
University students have been paying thousands for the privilege of isolating lockdowns in Covid-infested campuses with little to no in-person teaching, and are now facing an upcoming payment of thousands more in rent for rooms they feel unsafe occupying, or are simply unable to do so.
It is said that students, swathes of vulnerable young people, feel lied to and exploited into paying for services they were initially promised, but as of yet have largely not received.
I spoke to the organisers behind the QMUL Rent Strike campaign; the leaders of which were able to answer a few questions. We discussed their exact aims and demands, conditions living in halls during a pandemic, their solidarity with staff who are potentially put at risk, student reception of the campaign and their increasing potential for success.
Q: First thing’s first: what are your aims?
“Essentially, what we are aiming for is a more fair and less exploitative residential system which is suitable for the continuously changing nature of a global pandemic.
We, the students, feel that we were lied to about the likelihood of in-person learning (and therefore a need to rent accommodation in the first place).
As a result, we signed contracts with unrealistic exit clauses – a replacement tenant must be found (even though the supply vastly outweighs demand), and even when this has happened, some prospective tenants have been advised by the university to move into a room which has not yet been let out instead. We are being used as cash cows for rooms we cannot be expected to live in and given no option to leave.
Thus, we are aiming to bring about changes to the contracts which makes them more suitable and fairer for students living in a global pandemic, including the option to leave halls altogether with no penalty.
As well as unfair contracts, the living conditions in the halls of residence have been substandard.
We have collected a number of stories highlighting this, including problems with rodents, damp, mould, structural issues, flooding, and a case of one student’s entire possessions being removed from their (paid for) room.
These issues are not dealt with promptly or adequately by residential services, and thus we do not believe our accommodation is worth what we have paid for it. We hope that the rent strike will bring attention to these issues and force the University to step up and keep our living spaces clean and safe.
We are not only striking for students. It has been made known to us that cleaning staff were sent into flats without being told that these flats were supposed to be self-isolating, thus putting these staff at risk.
We think this level of risk is unacceptable – cleaning staff earning a fraction of the salary of the Vice-chancellor, for example, whilst playing a vital role in keeping students safe.
We stand in solidarity with all QMUL staff, which is why we are demanding that there will be no job losses for cleaning, maintenance, and teaching staff.”
Q: What are you demanding from the university?
- Queen Mary University of London commit to a 30% rent reduction for all students in halls for the remainder of the 2020/21 academic year.
- The University allows no-penalty early tenancy release clauses for home and international students from their rent contracts (and guarantees this for future academic years too).
- QMUL ensures no job losses for cleaning, maintenance and teaching staff who work in QMUL Halls or in QMUL teaching, plus better health and safety protection.
- There is an immediate increase in the support the University can offer for students in QMUL Halls of Residence:
–Allow students alone in halls to ‘bubble up’ with other houses during lockdowns
–Sufficient food, laundry, and post for flats in isolation
–Better and more consistent mental health support for students
- That the University takes no disciplinary action against rent strikers.
Q: How have students received the campaign?
“So far, we have over 100 students who are willing to participate in a rent strike. A number of societies have also pledged their support. Additionally, a Whatsapp group containing some of these students has provided numerous horror stories about their experiences in halls.
The reception on social media has been very good too, with high engagement on posts and a fast-rising follower count (250 on Instagram @rentstrikeqmul in the first week) We hope that this momentum and student support will continue to grow and allow the rent strike to be successful.”
Q: Do you see the strike being a success?
We have already seen that rent strikes are a valid and powerful method of demonstration: students at the University of Manchester won a 30% reduction in their rent for the first half of the year; students at Glasgow University secured a one-month rent rebate and a £50 payment to cover food expenditures during campus lockdowns; and more than 20 other universities are currently planning rent strikes.
The pressure on the University to maintain its image will be huge – especially given that QMUL has a 90% student demographic from state schools, they will want to preserve their reputation as a socially inclusive and fair University.
Given the number of people who have pledged to strike (over 100, and growing), the time and effort required from QMUL to take action against every student is likely to be too great, meaning they will look to negotiate.”
Q: Last question! If people wish to contact you or get involved, how can they do that?
“We have 2 Instagram pages – @qmprotest and @rentstrikeqmul. We answer DMs, otherwise both of these have links in their bio (linktr.ee/QMULRENTSTRIKE) which lead to links for a signup form, halls questionnaire and a Whatsapp chat where we discuss the rent strike and can answer any questions.
We also have a Twitter page – @QMULRentStrike and an email address at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone is welcome to pitch in with any skills that will help us increase the reach and publicity of the rent strike (including social media, graphic design, canvassing/campaigning, media and outreach, research or anything else!) And of course, the more people who take part, the better chance of having our demands met.”
Invited to comment, QMUL previously provided this statement on the matter:
“This has been a very difficult year for everyone, including our students. We have worked very hard in partnership with our students to make our campuses COVID-secure and ensure all who live, study and work at Queen Mary can do so safely. The impact of this work is reflected in the consistently low numbers of Covid-19 cases on our campuses… Our students are responsible adults and we treat them as such, which is why we have advised all students that they can travel as they wish, and come and go from their accommodation as they wish as long as they adhere to national and local Government guidelines.”