Nameer Al-Shabibi had been at the University of Bristol for a week and a half when he started to feel ill. After testing positive for coronavirus, he and his flat of 11 other first-year students in Wills Hall went into lockdown for two weeks. They were paying £832 a month in rent to be there.
“I didn't get a single check-up for two weeks to see how things were going, and I didn't know what to do about my lectures,” Al-Shabibi tells me over the phone. “I called my mum, I was like, ‘This is a new place, I've only been here for a week and a half and now I'm gonna be locked in a room for two weeks.’ It was kind of lonely, to be honest.”
When Al-Shabibi arrived in Bristol from London, he was looking forward to a new chapter of his life. Instead, he is paying thousands of pounds in tuition fees and rent to be stuck inside with coronavirus. “Lots of us have been misled,” he says. “It's been quite stressful, to be honest, and that's one the reasons we're striking.”
Al-Shabibi is one of over 1,000 students at the University of Bristol who are rent striking this month, refusing to pay rent until the university meets their demands. These include a 30-percent rent reduction, deposit refunds for students who wish to leave and better provision for those who are self-isolating. Campaign group Bristol, Cut the Rent has recruited students using phone-banking and WhatsApp messages, tapping into a widespread sense of anger at the way students have been treated during the pandemic.
Al-Shabibi got a WhatsApp message about the rent strike half-way through his quarantine.
“I saw someone put into the group chat, ‘Hey we're doing a rent strike, we've got a few 100 people, we'd love it if you'd sign up,’” he says. “I think it's an effective idea. We're taking money directly from the uni and saying, ‘You can't have this until you fulfil your end of the deal’.”
“We are very confident we will get our list of demands,” he adds, “and we won't stop until those demands are met.”
Bristol students aren’t the first to threaten a rent strike. First year-students across the UK have struggled this term – forced to quarantine with people they barely know while paying tuition fees for courses that are taught online, often without adequate food. In September, the University of Glasgow refunded a month’s rent to students affected by a mass outbreak in one of its halls, and over 200 first-year students at the University of Manchester are reported to be withholding £300,000 worth of rent this month.
While Al-Shabibi says that his experience has been helped by supportive flatmates, others aren’t so lucky. He has heard the horror stories: rubbish not being picked up from a friend’s halls for days, food deliveries consisting of jam but no bread, and coeliacs being given gluten.
Josephina Nagler Gómez, a first-year law student at Bristol, is also rent striking. She feels that she was misled by the university.
“We were all told that it would be safe to come up and there would be provisions in place to make sure that we were safe and healthy,” she says, “and that we would be able to take part in blended learning, which the university said would be a mixture of online and face-to-face contact with students and lecturers.”
“I came up just a month ago and I am yet to have any in contact lectures,” she adds. “I had corona in the second week, got put into isolation and tested positive. We just feel like we've been abandoned.”
When Nagler Gómez and her flat told the university that they had tested positive, she says that they waited almost two days to find out whether they would receive a food parcel. Nagler Gómez also claims that her halls sent a maintenance worker into their flat, despite the fact that they were self-isolating.
These experiences have prompted her to withhold rent for her room, which costs over £1,000 a month. “I feel like we've been lied to, if I'm being honest,” says Nagler Gómez. “We were told throughout the summer in however many emails they sent us, saying it would be safe to come up here and it just isn't. I have no idea how many people in my building have it. We have no idea how much danger we're putting ourselves in. It's not that we didn't know there was a pandemic on, but we were sold the idea it would be safe to come up here.”
“A lot of people don't feel safe and want to go home and we can't,” she adds. “Well, we can, but we're still paying £7,000 for a room we wouldn't be using.”
It’s not just the Bristol students that contracted coronavirus who are rent striking, though. Jake Winmill, a first-year business student from Cornwall, is refusing to pay rent because he is unhappy with the teaching he has received. He should be paying £712 a month for a room in Colston Street Halls.
“I came to university with the idea of gaining knowledge of how to apply it in the business world,” he says. “The online learning is such a joke. Half of the lectures, you can't even understand what they're saying. My lectures would change last minute to being online. It's so poorly organised.”
“I've been so angry and I'm not an angry person,” he adds. “I've just not been enjoying this experience. It's not because I don’t like uni – I'm not homesick – it's just a bit of a joke for £9,000 and £7,000 rent. It's not worth it.”
VICE News contacted the University of Bristol, who said that they would be meeting with Bristol, Cut the Rent this week to discuss the students’ demands. A spokesperson said: “We fully acknowledge how stressful and challenging the current situation is. We are doing our utmost to ensure our students can continue with their education in the safest environment possible in what are unprecedented times.”
“Students who withhold their rent will suffer no detriment to their educational progress, however we will ultimately have to follow our standard debt collection procedure as per our tenancy agreement,” they continued. “Although students are facing some necessary restrictions to safeguard their health and the health of others, we have been as flexible as possible and believe we’ve gone above and beyond to provide support.”
The university also disputes the argument that students were misled about the kind of teaching offered this term. “We have always been clear about our plan to offer a blend of online and in-person teaching,” the spokesperson said. “This blended learning provision has been created to ensure students can still continue with their studies online if they are self-isolating or choose not to come to Bristol.”
Rent is due for the Bristol students this week. If everyone who has signed up to the rent strike refuses to pay, the university could be at risk of losing millions of pounds. Do the students think that the strike will be a success?
“I’d like to think so,” says Nagler Gómez. “I feel like they can't ignore over a thousand people telling them we've been cheated out of something.”