Contributed article by Jude Rowley
Lancaster students have spent the last five weeks calling on University management to cut the rent and start taking student wellbeing seriously.
When the pandemic hit last March, students — fed-up with being abandoned by University management and following in the footsteps of their predecessors in the 1974–75 academic year — decided to take action and organise a rent strike. The strike was largely successful, with millions of pounds worth of concessions having been won back in rent.
At the start of this term, students found themselves in a very similar boat. Instructed not to return to campus and to instead continue online learning from their current residence (with some exceptions, including for
critical courses like Medicine), the majority of students have not returned to Lancaster. It is difficult to say exactly how many students remain on campus and how many have stayed home. Indeed, even University accommodation teams have been struggling to work this out themselves, with repeated emails to students asking them to confirm their whereabouts, likely in recognition that this would determine the scale of the reductions (if any) management may see fit to offer to students. This has since escalated, and students are now prevented from accessing their course materials on Moodle until they state their current whereabouts. However, anecdotal evidence suggests a roughly 70/30 split between those at home and those on campus.
With students on- and off-campus both being charged full rent amidst the University moving online, we decided, as a group of student organisers, to call a rent strike. Within a matter of days, over 1,300 students joined the strike, and we gathered over 1,500 signatures on our open letter calling for the rent strike demands to be met. These demands were fourfold:
– 50% rent reductions for students on campus;
– 100% rent reductions for students off campus;
– improved student well-being support, including mental health provision and hardship funding; and
– no repercussions for students on rent strike.
The most important priority of the rent strike was that no-one would be left behind. Though the 2020 student rent strike won major concessions, international students and others who were trapped on campus were not offered reductions or waivers. This time, the organisers resolved to keep pressure on the University until they made an offer that provided something for every student, regardless of their whereabouts, accommodation type, or fee status.
Management at first sought to ignore the rent strike, refusing to accept it as an organised movement rather than individual students independently deciding to withhold rent. However, we found the most effective tactic was to turn to the local and national press to put pressure on the University. It turns out that management will tolerate many things, but they draw the line at negative publicity that might undermine that prized
top 10 status we hear so much about. After interviews and features on BBC News and in the local media, management eventually came out with the offer of a £400 rent reduction as a gesture of their
good-will, but were quick to stress that their good-will only extended to students who: (a) were unable to return to their campus accommodation; and (b) paid their outstanding rent for the term in full. For many students subject to ever-rising campus accommodation costs, this amounts to less than 3 weeks’ rent, and was therefore met with anger and righteous indignation. An online survey found that more than 7 in 10 students rejected the offer outright.
Students felt they were not being listened to, so we called for University management to meet with rent strike organisers for constructive discussion on striking students’ demands. Eventually, with mounting student pressure, management agreed to a meeting, facilitated through the Students’ Union and informally chaired by the Students’ Union President.
This seems to mark a shift in management’s approach to student activism, as they had certainly not agreed to meet organisers of other recent student campaigns, aside from an impromptu confrontation with the then-acting Vice-Chancellor in Alex Square last February over institutional bullying (see the subtext 192 editorial). Despite these meetings, management remained predictably non-committal. Keen to insist that they are listening and that we are
all in this together, they promised movement on the priority issues for the rent strikers, without actually delivering much at all.
Upping the offer for those off-campus — with nothing for those lured back to campus by necessity or by University encouragement of a return to
normal after Christmas — appeared to be an attempt to turn the two groups of students against each other, in an attempt to divide our rent strike. We made it clear that students were united and would not give in until there was something offered for everyone. We were equally quick to stress throughout that we fully support the campus UCU, Unison, and Unite branches and would not tolerate any attempt by management to divide staff and students. We have been grateful to have the full support of Lancaster UCU from the outset.
Our main message throughout has been that we want recognition of the difficulties facing all students and concessions that benefit every member of the Lancaster University community. Despite assurances that this had been taken into account, management strategy did not appear to have changed. At the start of Week 15, they doubled the £400 rebate for students who would not return to campus before the 8th of March, whilst ignoring the other demands and, significantly, refusing to acknowledge that their hand had been forced by striking students.
We attempted to keep up the momentum and sustain the strike, but this became increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, management’s divide-and-conquer tactics were more successful than we’d hoped. By the end of Week 15, our numbers had dropped significantly with many students taking the £800 offer and paying their rent. At the outset of the rent strike, we set ourselves a red line: if the strike fell below 500 participants, we knew we could no longer safely continue without running the risk of repercussions or disciplinary action against individual students. Having fallen to just over half of this number, we had to take the hard decision to call off the strike.
This may feel like a defeat, but in many ways it is not: we have won £3 million worth of concessions in rent, significantly improved mental health services for students, and a reformed and streamlined student support fund. Perhaps even more significantly, students have mobilised and taken collective action, and there is momentum to take this forward.