Tag Archives: rent strike

Struck Off

Lancaster’s student rent strike, which saw thousands of learners organise remotely to challenge the University’s insistence that they pay for campus rooms that they weren’t using, ended last week. The Director of Finance reported, at the Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff meeting on 29 January, that 2,000 students had accepted management’s initial offer of a £400 goodwill payment; this offer was recently doubled to £800, which led to the decision to call off the campaign.

subtext congratulates the organisers, and those taking action, for once again highlighting the consequences of Lancaster’s student residences contract with UPP. As the Vice-Chancellor noted at the all-staff meeting, the University is liable for the rent, whether there are students in the rooms or not.

In a special report, one of the strike organisers gives their own account of the campaign.

Diary of a Rent Strike Organiser

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.

Cancel the Rent

A contributed report from your socially distanced subtext correspondent

Student members of ACORN, the tenants and community union, put up a banner saying cancel the rent above the University underpass, and cancel the rent and housing is health posters onto white boards across campus on Monday 25 May, as part of the current student rent strike on campus. In order to comply with lockdown regulations, the exercise involved a very small number of activists who live in campus accommodation and it lasted only c. 40 minutes. Physical distancing was adhered to at all times.

Students involved in the exercise said that there are currently c. 200 students still on rent strike over unfair rent claims made by the University. Many students are stuck on campus due to the lockdown; this affects international students in particular. The University had not yet shown its willingness to negotiate with the students, who made their demands several weeks ago. The students stuck on campus still have to pay the full rent despite many services not being provided, and those who, due to the lockdown rules, had to leave belongings in their abandoned rooms still have to pay 25%.

The students involved in the banner action said that they now struggle with the supply of basic essentials on campus, especially a scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables. They have had to rely on the heavily overpriced campus Spar and campus central markets, which they say have only a very limited supply of everyday essentials. Fruit and vegetables currently sold in the shops on campus are limited and often near their expiry date. They are also overpriced, compared to the prices for the same items in grocery shops in town. The students also lamented that due to the COVID-19 lockdown, cleaning doesn’t take place in their halls, yet they are still asked to pay for it.

The students reported that it feels strange and somewhat eerie to live on an almost deserted campus.

STRIKE UP YOUR LIFE

In the fortnight since the last edition of subtext, there has been a considerable amount of strike-related activity, both in Lancaster and at the national level.

THE LOCAL FLAVOUR

The campus picket lines have been busier than ever, with a head count of over 160 on Tuesday this week, along with music and dancing every day (Zumba being particularly popular) and even some protest poetry on Wednesday. The VC ‘visited’ on the 8th March, but received a markedly less positive reaction than the several HoDs who did their stint on the lines. A video of his visit, with added commentary by the local UCU branch, is available here: https://youtu.be/lfSTLmdnRVE

Compared to previous disputes, the staff on strike are spread across the whole range of departments in the University, with somewhat less representation from LUMS. Meanwhile, the teach out events, featuring everything from a personal history of the 84/85 miners’ strike to yoga, have also been well attended – see below.

Numerous colleagues involved in the strike have remarked what a sense of solidarity and community is emerging from being thrown together in these adverse circumstances, while the lack of day-to-day work schedules seems to have unleashed all kinds of creativity and willingness to engage in activities that we never normally have time for. Union members were particularly heartened by the strong support from students, some of whom have been coming to the picket lines and teach outs every day.

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STRUCK DOWN IN ANGER

At the national level, the past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity. Universities UK (UUK) initially refused to negotiate with UCU, then agreed to meet but not reopen the decision on the pensions proposal (raising questions about what exactly they were proposing to discuss). When one VC after another came out publicly in favour of open negotiations, UUK were eventually forced into a humiliating climbdown and agreed to talks without preconditions at ACAS.

Following a few quiet days last week, and then an announcement that negotiators would be working through the weekend, Monday evening saw the announcement of a so-called agreement between UCU and UUK. This represented an improvement of sorts on the original UUK proposal, but included a worse accrual rate (1/85th of salary for each year of service vs the current 1/75th), an increase in both employee and employer contributions, and a cap of 2.5% on the rate that pensions could increase annually with inflation, meaning that if prices rise by more than this amount, pensions would lose value in real terms.

The reaction from UCU members was… not good. Very quickly, UCU Twitterati took the proposal apart, and an open letter in opposition to the proposal had collected around 3000 signatures by midnight on Monday, while a further 4000 signed by 11am the following morning.

Above all else, members were incensed by the proposal that teaching that had not taken place as a result of strike action should be rearranged. Colleagues argued that this would effectively mean doing work they had already sacrificed pay for. And in any case, there was not nearly enough time to fit 14 days’ worth of teaching into the few remaining days of term.

Throughout Tuesday, members of the union’s Higher Education Committee were subject to a frenzy of social media and email lobbying, overwhelmingly urging rejection. A meeting of branch delegates from all over the country decided almost unanimously to reject what they felt represented a betrayal of the sacrifice that members had made by being on strike.

In the end, the reject camp prevailed, perhaps helped by the large demonstration outside UCU headquarters in London, whose chants could be heard by the delegates arguing inside. The UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, later explained that the negotiators had been tightly constrained by the ACAS process in what and how they were allowed to communicate.

So the strike continues today and tomorrow, with the fourteen further strike days set to hit assessment season, with exam marking and exam boards likely to be a particular target for local branches. This will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on students than just missing a few lectures, possibly even delaying graduations for final-years. Action short of a strike also continues: UCU members are ‘threatening’ to only do the work they are contracted to do, rather than contributing the massive amounts of unpaid overtime that normally keep universities going on a day-to-day basis.

UUK are blaming the dire situation on UCU for walking away from negotiations, while UCU’s line is that the employers could stop the strike at any point by making a fair offer. Students at Lancaster, for now, seem to be largely supportive of their local staff, though whether this solidarity will continue for a further 14 days of disruption remains to be seen.

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TAUGHTILLA

As reported in subtext 174, UCU have been running a series of ‘teach out’ events during the strike – a different way of engaging with staff and students and anyone else who is interested in what the industrial action is about, as well as a number of other somewhat related topics.

While teach outs resemble the form of the labour that staff have withdrawn from their employer, the sessions do not necessarily follow the expected conventions of university teaching. The inherent radicalism of such a venture comes from the enforced interdisciplinarity of the project: colleagues, students and members of the public may come from any academic background, or not be involved in academia at all. It is teaching for interest’s sake, not for ‘knowledge-transfer’, measuring, testing, or satisfying government ‘key information sets’.

Lancaster UCU, together with a host of other branches, organised an alternative education experience for every day of the strike action. Most of the sessions took place at the Gregson Community Centre and were largely well attended, with many packing the Gregson Centre’s modestly-sized hall to the rafters. The curriculum features a mixture of debates, interactive workshops, informal lectures featuring some outside speakers as well as Lancaster academics, film showings, a couple of musical gigs and away from the Gregson some ‘walk and talk’ happenings. In the final days of the current round of strike action, sessions with a more restorative agenda were planned i.e. yoga and craft making.

All the sessions were open to University staff, students, and other folk from the wider community. There was a strong student presence at some sessions and even some members of the public at some events. However, it was staff from the University that made up the bulk of the attendees.

Many of the sessions focussed on the question: ‘what kind of university do we want?’ Yes, pensions were discussed, but within a wider understanding of the changing nature of the sector. Attendees remarked that they felt particularly empowered by speaking with other members of the University who they would not normally meet at work. This prompted a lot of talk about the future and how the this strong feeling of solidarity could be maintained after the dispute.

Readers may have ideas on how this ‘new space’ that the striking community has built can be maintained, and what its purpose would be once work resumes. subtext would welcome contributions on this fascinating development at Lancaster, and would be happy to play a part in future conversations.

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RADICAL OR MERELY YOUNGER? A REVIEW

It seems appropriate that on Monday 12 March, midway through Lancaster’s longest period of industrial action in decades, UCU’s teach out at the Gregson played host to an event that seemed to shout, ‘Call that radical? Ha!’ Marion McClintock, Honorary University Archivist and former Academic Registrar at Lancaster, and Alison Lloyd Williams of Global Link’s Documenting Dissent project were our guides as they took us through Lancaster’s radical past, both on and off campus.

According to Mrs McClintock, Lancaster University in its early days was characterised by very conservative Heads of Department, many of whom were ex-military, alongside younger, more radical staff, who pioneered Lancaster’s distinctive degree programmes: Religious Studies (not Theology), Independent Studies, Creative Writing, Environmental Studies, Peace Studies, Marketing, and Systems Engineering. Students were given the chance to ‘grapple with subjects they’d not studied before.’ Above all, Lancaster was shaped by its first Vice-Chancellor, Charles Carter, who actively encouraged this interdisciplinary approach. We were a university that ‘was taking a fresh look at society, was taking nothing for granted and was questioning norms.’

Publications of the time, like John O’Gauntlet and Carolynne, reflected this mood and encouraged debate on drugs, sex and gay rights, although some of their editorial choices, such as pin-up girls in Carolynne, seem archaic today.

Among the many disputes of the early years were ‘the mixed bedrooms argument of 1968’, the David Craig affair (see subtexts 8 and 9) and the 1975 rent strike which lasted over 12 months. Student involvement in these disputes was strong.

Lancaster’s college system played an important role in Lancaster’s free-thinking tradition; Sir Noel Hall, one of the university’s founders, was formerly Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford and had insisted that the colleges must form an integral part of Lancaster’s governance.

Why are things not like that any more? Lancaster’s rising research reputation in the 1980s meant that staff and students no longer had as much time to spend on innovative teaching or political discussion, and even Prof Carter was subject to the same pressures as everyone else.

Ms Lloyd Williams gave a history of the Documenting Dissent project, which was inspired by Lancaster Castle and its status as a symbol of state power and the location of Lancashire’s most important court. Many dissenters, including several chartists, had been tried there.

Lancaster is particularly significant in LGBT history, given the number of people prosecuted for homosexuality at the Castle, but more happily due to the significant presence during the 1970s of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) on campus, and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in town. Lancaster University pioneered women’s studies and radical feminism, while the very first CHE Conference took place in Morecambe.

More recently, the case of the George Fox Six, where six students and ex-students disrupted a conference in George Fox Lecture Theatre 1 and were promptly prosecuted for aggravated trespass, shows both that the dissenting tradition is still there … but that the university is no longer as tolerant as it was. The Documenting Dissent website includes an account of the affair, including an interview with Matthew Wilson, one of the six.

Contributions from the floor included comments from several people who have been encouraging the radical tradition at Lancaster for decades, including city councillor Andrew Kay, who remembered long campus debates on ‘this house will not give a platform for racist and fascist speakers’ and ‘this house is glad to be gay’, and former city councillor Tony Pinkney, who thought two years stood out in particular – 1886, when William Morris’s talk in the town led to the founding of the Socialist League, and 1999, when Lancaster elected its first ever group of Green Party councillors.

The Documenting Dissent project’s website is at: http://www.documentingdissent.org.uk/

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DEMOCRACY IS THRIVING … ELSEWHERE

There have been many Vice-Chancellorial U-turns on USS and risk recently, but the most notable ones have come from the VCs at Oxford and Cambridge, both on 7 March. Given that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were all treated as separate institutions in Universities UK’s September 2017 survey of attitudes to institutional risk, this is a major shift.

Why the change? Of course, we are happy to accept that both VCs will have reached their decisions sincerely. But Oxford’s VC, Prof Richardson, has probably been helped by the meeting of Oxford’s Congregation on 6 March, at which a resolution seeking to overturn Oxford’s existing stance on pensions was first blocked controversially, and then discussed outside, where it passed 442 to 2.

Likewise, Cambridge’s VC, Prof Toope, doubtless had his mind sharpened by the impending ballot of Cambridge’s Regent House, on a motion submitted by 501 members, which seeks to amend Cambridge’s official view on USS.

For readers not familiar with how Oxford and Cambridge work, the Oxford Congregation and Cambridge Regent House are the supreme governing bodies of those institutions, made up of all academic staff. They can, and occasionally do, overrule the University Council.

True democracy in action! But wait. Surely these forms of governance must violate the Committee of University Chairs’ Higher Education Code of Governance, the document which our Chief Administrative Officer in particular is very fond of (see subtext 174 and other subtexts passim)?

Well … yes. But they seem to be doing OK, all things considered.

Now that our Court has met for the final time, and our Senate has willingly handed its power to amend statutes over to our Council, perhaps we should start advocating something similar here? After all, our VC’s usual answer when challenged about centralising power is ‘the Warwick clincher’ – they do it at Warwick so it must therefore be a good thing – so perhaps we should start playing ‘the Oxford gambit’ in response.