Even before the UK government issued lockdown style measures to respond to the coronavirus, many people had already burrowed themselves away. They were working from home, avoiding the pub and staying away from friends. Or – if they were a student – jumping on the next train back to their parents.
The Petri dish of university halls was never going to be the best place to stay with a virus going around. Hundreds of students are cooped up in close contact and sanitation isn’t great – of course you’re going to want to leave for somewhere with home cooked food and fresh sheets (aka your mum’s house). But if you can’t return to university, should you have to pay rent for somewhere you’re no longer living?
It’s a tricky situation that deserves answers. That's why students across the UK are planning rent strikes to avoid paying for university accommodation. VICE has been in touch with students from the University of London, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Bristol, the University of Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam University who are all planning to suspend payment of rent in protest. Rent Strike – a network of university “Cut The Rent” groups in Britain and Ireland – have even put together a guide for students looking to organise similar actions on campus.
The rent strikers from the University of London – the biggest uni in the UK – told VICE that they were forced to take action because of the treatment of students in university-owned halls during the pandemic. Almost 180,000 students are enrolled at UoL, which counts UCL, Goldsmiths, King's and LSE among its colleges. "We think it’s completely ridiculous they’re charging the rent," said 20-year-old student Isaac Hanson, the chair of Liberate the University, a grassroots student movement.
Students in UoL halls could previously leave their contract early, but their room had to be cleaned and emptied by the 1st of April. The group argued that this expectation was grossly unfair, given that everything but non-essential travel is technically illegal. On April 3rd, a spokesperson for the university told Metro that it has changed its policy following the criticism: students no longer have to pay rent and can keep their belongings in storage for £25 a week. UoL confirmed this to VICE.
UoL students are now turning their attention toward private university accommodation. The same goes for students across the country, who are organising their own respective rent strikes. VICE has spoken to students in Brighton, who say private landlords have locked them into long contracts which they’ll now no longer be able to pay for since they’re not working. Brighton is the second most expensive UK city for renters, coming behind London in a 2020 study. With the pandemic killing off typical student jobs like bar and restaurant work, students are struggling to pay rent.
"Rent is 1.8 times more expensive than anywhere else in the country," says Josh, 19, a first-year Humanities student who is participating in the rent strike. "Generally, the situation in Brighton is quite fucked at the moment. It's mad, the way the private rent is being run."
VICE has also spoken to students in Bristol experiencing a similar situation, with students stuck in long term private contracts and asked to pay rent for accommodation they may not be using or able to afford. Ruth Day, 21, is a third-year Maths and Philosophy student who is organising a rent strike at her university. She says over a hundred students haven't paid their final rent payments, which were due on April 1st to a specialist student housing agency called Digs.
"The last we heard on Friday is that Digs are negotiating with their landlords – but we've heard nothing since then," she says. "130 of us are still on strike until we get some meaningful concessions." Digs did not respond to VICE's request for comment.
The difficulty, of course, is that a significant number of students living in the same accommodation need to agree to a rent strike. It’s not as simple as not paying up. That’s why students are asking their universities and the government to step in.
Ultimately, the rent strikes are about students grouping up to change the system. Change is going to be difficult to action – but also not impossible.
"We're pushing as many people to refuse to pay as possible, so that the universities do something about it," says Isaac. Good luck to them.