Socialist Alternative

Rent strike: Manchester students take on university managers

Tragically, in October, first-year student Finn Kitson took his own life in his halls of residence in Fallowfield. He had been suffering from severe anxiety. At the time of his death, Fallowfield was one of the student areas with the highest number of Coronavirus cases in Britain. The death has been classified as ‘non-Covid related’, but as his father has said on social media: “If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety.”

After being promised a return to normal, face-to-face teaching, and the opportunity to meet new people and experience new things, students were instead caged in their cramped university accommodation and blamed for the spike in Coronavirus cases in the city. 

The reckless treatment of students during the Coronavirus crisis has worsened a mental health crisis that already claimed the lives of far too many. A failed plan to distribute food to self-isolating households led to mouldy food arriving at the houses the day their isolation was lifted. In other places, the university said that those isolating (even those that tested positive!) could go to the shop, as long as they wore a mask.

The support students have received from the universities during a crisis that has severely impacted mental health is pitiful. The universities have continuously placed the value of profit over the value of lives, and students are paying the price.

But students aren’t taking it lying down any longer!

Students at the University of Manchester have been rent striking and will continue to until their three demands are met.

  1. A rent reduction of at least 40%, for the remainder of the academic year 2020-21.
  2. To offer all students no-penalty early release clauses from their tenancy contracts, for both this and next academic years.
  3. Increase the standard of support for students in Halls of Residence, this includes: food, laundry and post for isolating flats; better security; faster responses to complaints about standards of living (e.g. broken fridges).

University management have so far refused to meet the demands, and they have refused to meet with the organisers and participants of the rent strike, instead opting to only speak to Students Unions to avoid direct scrutiny. They have shockingly threatened 3% fines on late rent payments; an illegal threat which they were later forced to back down on after the strikers pointed this out.  Most recently, the university offered a paltry 5% reduction in rent payments, by telling students they wouldn’t have to pay rent over the Christmas period – a period when thousands of students wouldn’t be using the service anyway! This offer was roundly rejected.

Unaware, or blissfully ignorant of the anger and increasingly radical sentiment felt at the accommodation, university management put up fencing around the halls, without notice or explanation as to why, fuelling justified fears that it would act as a bridge towards trapping them into their accommodation. This inhumane treatment took the anger felt to a new level and that same day, students tore the fencing down. 

Occupation

An unused tower on the Manchester University Owens Park campus has been taken over and occupied by students. Banners have been hung out of the windows reading:: “Students and Staff before profit” or and “This Building is Occupied: Rent Strike.”

After a protest was called in support of the occupation, police threatened organisers from the student campaigning group SAFER with mass arrests and unpayable fines. But when the protest went ahead anyway dozens of police turned up and riot vans lined the streets of Fallowfield. They shouted at protesters, filmed their faces “for our own safety”, stole a speaker, and just generally looked and acted in a way designed to be as intimidating as possible. Student Socialist Alternative attended the protest with a banner saying “Cancel Fees and Rents: Free Education Now!”  

The following weekend, first-year black student Zac Adan was pushed against a wall  by security, 10 meters away from his home because he ‘looked like a drug dealer.’ He was given no chance to show his ID in a clear and horrendous case of racial profiling. Students responded by organising a huge mass protest in Owens Park, bigger than any of the ones before it. 

What next for the movement?

Through mass doorknocking, protests and occupations the rent strike movement can continue to expand. We must ensure that the university caves to the three demands put forward by the rent strikers. Doing this means democratically electing coordinators under the accountability of the campaign that can focus on expanding and building for as many students as possible to cancel their direct debits. The rent strike movement could  have an even bigger impact at the next rent payment date on January 29.

If there is a real emphasis on building on the ground, developing a base in student flats through canvassing and mass registration, then the university would be left with no option but to cave in. Already, the hated Vice-Chancellor of UoM ‘Dame’ Nancy Rothwell has revealed in an interview with Manchester Evening News that this has been the “hardest year [she had] ever experienced”. No wonder – the campaign is clearly having an impact. 

If the university is forced to agree to the demands by the Rent Strike, this would be a major win for the movement. It would act as a real gateway for more and more students to get involved in radical activism, and for even more to be fought for and achieved. But we must not stop there, we must continue the fight for a better and fairer education system. As a first step, Nancy must accept the will of the students and resign immediately. The system of massively inflated pay for Vice Chancellors and senior management must end right away. Universities should be run by students and workers themselves through democratically elected bodies, with nobody receiving a wage higher than hay of an average university worker. 

Already, rent strikers are developing national links with campaigners in Bristol and the newly formed rent strike effort at the University of York. This is something that must urgently continue, as a national campaigned, linked up at every level would immensely strengthen us. 

We need to connect the struggle and fight of the students to that of the lecturers and university staff. The UCU union branch at the University of Manchester has written messages of support for the rent strike movement, donated money to the Union Advice Service emergency fund, and mobilised to support the rent strike in any way it can. Hundreds of lecturers signed an open letter saying they have ‘never felt so ashamed and humiliated’ to be associated with the university, and many of the visited the occupation in solidarity. Especially considering the university may be facing a new round of strike action later this year, it will be more important than ever to build on this and continue to jointly campaign.

Socialist Alternative members in Manchester, including staff at the uni and UCU members have been playing a key role in building links between the students and workers. Joint action days must be planned as both groups are under attack from the marketisation of the education system.

What this movement shows

We are witnessing a wave of radicalisation. New sections of workers and youth are entering the struggle in ways not seen before. This is the most significant example of student struggle against the effects of capitalism and the marketisation of the education system since 2010 when the anti-fees protests stormed Tory HQ in London. Students recognise this isn’t isolated. The treatment, and overcharging of students isn’t a new problem, but it is something that has had its worst elements highlighted by the Coronavirus.

A victory for the rent strikers, and the meeting of the three demands by the university can’t stop there. A 40% reduction should be celebrated as a victory, but it should also then be built on radically. Full trade union rights for staff, public and affordable student housing democratically controlled by student renters, and the democratic organisation of education through elected bodies of workers and students must be fought for and must be won, as a step towards a truly empowering, free, liberated and socialist education system!

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