'We've been lied to': Students tell LBC why thousands will refuse to pay rent next term

8 December 2020, 13:06 | Updated: 9 December 2020, 18:13

Many students are complaining they have had little or no face to face teaching.
Many students are complaining they have had little or no face to face teaching. Picture: Nichole Tan/@nicholetanyt

By Joe Cook

Thousands of university students across the UK say they will go on rent strike in January, telling LBC they were “sold a misleading dream”.

Students from at least 20 universities are planning on withholding hundreds of thousands of pounds in rent next term unless their universities agree to negotiate on rent reductions, alongside other demands.

The action comes amidst growing frustration at the lack of face-to-face teaching and students being forced to regularly self-isolate due to Covid cases in halls.

Universities tell LBC they are providing “high quality education” and going “above and beyond to support students”, but many students disagree.

A ‘dire’ situation

Cambridge student, Tara Choudhury, told LBC she understands rent “striking is seen as quite an extreme action”, but “all of the more moderate options have been exhausted”.

“The rent strike is just a way of leveraging something against them and forcing them to listen, because they've ignored us for so long now and the situation's getting just dire,” Tara said.

Read more: Student lockdowns are 'legally dicey', human rights lawyer says

The 20 year-old History and Politics student told LBC she has had none of the in-person teaching promised to students. She will join over 400 students, across all 31 of Cambridge’s colleges, in refusing to pay rent next term.

“It's coming up to Christmas and all of my money has gone on rent ,which is completely unnecessary. We were basically brought down here on a lie.”

University of Sussex student, Billie Krish, is planning on working throughout the Christmas period to recruit more people to join the 250 strikers who are already pledging to withhold their rent.

The first year student also told LBC that “hardly any face-to-face teaching” had gone ahead, leaving him feeling “extremely isolated and lonely”.

“We've heard from loads of students who've wanted to leave their accommodation who haven't felt happy, haven't sometimes felt safe... and would much rather be surrounded by family and friends. But the university has simply said no.”

Billie is not alone in working to recruit more strikers. Emerson Murphy, a student living in intercollegiate University of London (UoL) accommodation, is looking to get the word out after signing up 35 people in the first two days.

He’s worried about a third wave of Covid after Christmas, after it “ripped through” the building in October.

Some students were forced to self-isolate in small rooms for "four to five weeks at a time" Emmerson told LBC.
Some students were forced to self-isolate in small rooms for "four to five weeks at a time" Emmerson told LBC. Picture: Emerson Murphy

Emerson described the halls’ handling of the pandemic as “pretty shambolic and incompetent”, with a “whole floor quarantine policy” meaning 100 students had to self isolate when one got symptoms.

In response, a spokesperson for the University of London told LBC they always follow PHE guidance, which initially advised isolating whole floors. They added that their own contact tracing service, developed since “mid-October”, had reduced student numbers in isolation by 75%.

Read more: Manchester Met student reveals 'vile' conditions at university halls during lockdown

‘Dead rats’ and ‘black mould’

With students stuck in their rooms watching online lectures, many are also highlighting problems regarding their accommodation.

Alex, from the University of Sussex, claims his complaints about black mould causing him allergies went unsolved and he was told if he moved out he would have to find someone to take on the room.

The university said they could not comment on individual cases but “work closely with students to provide them access to alternative accommodation” if issues are not solved quickly.

One Sussex student told LBC they felt they had to move out due to mould in their accomodation.
One Sussex student told LBC they felt they had to move out due to mould in their accomodation. Picture: .

Meanwhile, Luke Sullivan, who studies at Goldsmiths in London, told LBC he believes his room was not cleaned after the previous student left in March, with “black mould” and “dead rats” in the building.

"I literally walked into my room, there were urine stains on the floor, the calendar from last year was up,” he explained. “I got in some WhatsApp chats and realised that in my entire building, all the rooms had not been touched."

Luke Sullivan from Goldsmiths says this was "urine stained" bathroom floor of his £8,300 a year accommodation when he moved in.
Luke Sullivan from Goldsmiths says this was "urine stained" bathroom floor of his £8,300 a year accommodation when he moved in. Picture: Luke Sullivan

The 18-year-old says even without the pandemic he believes the rent is extortionate, “it's £8,300 pounds [a year] for 20 feet, like a bathroom and a bed."

He has worked with others to sign up 150 students, after launching the rent strike at Goldsmiths a week ago.

Goldsmiths told LBC they take their "duty to offer good accommodation seriously" and "are reminding all external accommodation providers that they have a duty to respond appropriately to any complaints".

‘A domino effect’

While student complaints about rent costs and poor accommodation are nothing new, the pandemic has brought added intensity to their demands.

A successful rent strike at Manchester University earlier this year has inspired many others to follow their example.

“The victory at Manchester University shows that when students organise, we can win.” Oxford University Cut the Rent group told LBC.

Read more: Manchester University security guards suspended after claims of racial profiling of student

Manchester students projected their message onto a university building in November.
Manchester students projected their message onto a university building in November. Picture: RentstrikeUoM

Students are even organising Zoom calls to discuss tactics. “There's a real network of support across the country, of rent strike groups coming together for advice and encouragement so that's been really helpful,” Emerson explained.

Goldsmiths student Luke agreed, adding: “I think the pandemic definitely helped us, it gave it more of a realistic chance of happening.”

“It's a domino effect,” he told LBC. "We had a lot of calls with Bristol rent strike organisers, really listening in to their tactics.

“They told us the university won't really listen to you at first, they'll give you little crumbs and little meetings, but you're gonna have to take more action.”

Students at Manchester and Bristol are continuing their rent strike from this term into January.
Students at Manchester and Bristol are continuing their rent strike from this term into January. Picture: RentstrikeUoM

The situation at Bristol may stand as a warning for other universities, where students are already holding what they say is “the biggest student rent strike in recent history”.

First year student, Saranya Thambirajah, says over 1,400 people signed up to withhold rent in October.

The students have won some concessions from the university, with a rebate given to students “to reflect the latest government advice for a staggered return in the New Year”.

However, the strikers are still pushing for a 30 percent rent reduction across the whole year, which they say would cost the university around £14 million.

“We're hoping to continue growing the strike and withhold upwards of five to ten million pounds,” Saranya, 19, told LBC.

“This rent strike movement was born out of the Covid crisis... but I think is also a bit of a wider issue that students are starting to fight back.

“10 years ago we had the tuition fee protests and I think it's sort of a new wave of students growing up in the wake of that.”

Read more: Student hell: Anger grows with thousands trapped in ‘vile’ conditions

‘We have gone above and beyond’

Universities UK, which represents 140 universities in the UK, told LBC: "Decisions on accommodation costs will be a local decision for individual universities, taking into account the circumstances at their institutions and of their students."

They stressed that most students have had some in-person teaching and say they recognise the financial pressures the pandemic has placed on students.

Robert Kerse, Chief Operating Officer at the University of Bristol told LBC: “We believe we have gone above and beyond... to support students during this stressful and challenging period.”

“There will also be a new policy to reflect the fact that it is better for some students’ physical and mental health not to reside in University accommodation. Students who are affected in this way will be released from their tenancy penalty free.”

Cambridge said they have provided “high quality education through a mix of in-person and online teaching” and most of their students “have been strongly appreciative”.

Meanwhile, Sussex said they have been “highlighted in the sector” for its “self-isolation support package” and engage with the Students’ Union regularly.

They added they are “extremely disappointed” the Union are encouraging students to rent strike while staff are doing “all they can... during this very challenging time.”

UOL said they are disappointed if students are unhappy and have worked “incredibly hard to protect the health of students”.

Goldsmiths told LBC they are "committed to giving... students the best possible education and support" and as much in-person teaching as is "practical and safe".