By Sean Meleady

With the announcement on 4 January of a third national lockdown, the majority of students at the UEA have been unable to return to the University following the end of the Christmas holidays. However, a campaign was set up several days before the lockdown announcement by a group of students calling for a rent strike at UEA. 

In a rent strike guide published on 31 December, the group explained this action was a ‘last resort’ taken by students in University accommodation. This follows a successful high profile rent strike at the University of Manchester in the autumn term and the establishment of similar campaigns at universities across the country. 

UEA Rent Strike, as the group calls itself, identified four key reasons for students withholding rent. Firstly, they argue that many students were promised in-person and online teaching, which wasn’t delivered, with many courses consisting solely of pre-recorded content. Timetables were also not made available in a sufficient amount of time before students had to commit to accommodation licences. As a result, students who cancelled their accommodation licences after a seven day ‘cool off’ period (which the Accommodation Office refused to extend) were forced by the University to pay their accommodation fees in full.  

Thirdly, UEA Rent Strike argues that fewer facilities have been available on the campus when compared to a normal university semester. At the time the guide was written, students were unable to return to campus until 25 January. In addition to the pre-Christmas travel window ending term early and re-starting it later than originally scheduled, this would have cost students on average around £600 in accommodation fees for times they were unable to reside in University accommodation.

Student protestors at University College London. Credit: Rent Strike

UEA Rent strike outlined three key demands. Firstly, following the example of The University of Manchester, they insisted the University agree to a 30% rent reduction for the 2020/21 academic year. They also argue that UEA should offer students a no-penalty early release clause from their contracts and no disciplinary action should be taken against rent strikers. 

In a post addressed to a representative of UEA Students’ Union, the rent strikers included a number of complaints which they felt the University needed to hear. These included reports of smashed windows, broken toilets, and workmen in University accommodation not following social distancing guidelines.

UEA Vice Chancellor David Richardson sent an email to students on 5 January, offering an eight-week rent rebate to the majority of students

Following the announcement of a third national lockdown, UEA Vice Chancellor David Richardson sent an email to students on 5 January, offering an eight-week rent rebate to the majority of students who were not able to return to campus. This indicated that many students would not be able to return to UEA until March. A subsequent update, issued by the University on 16 February, has extended this to a twelve-week rebate, to reflect the fact that, ‘All teaching and in-person supervision, with some specific exemptions, will be online up until at least the Easter break (which begins on Saturday 27 March 2021).’

UEA Rent strike described the initial email as vague and responded by issuing a series of demands. These included the original demands for a 30% rent reduction for the academic year, no penalty release clauses and the promise of no disciplinary action against rent strikers. Supplementing these, they also responded with new demands, including refunds for students for periods they were unable to access accommodation, a tuition fee reduction and a ten-day extension for exams and coursework. 

On 8 January, UEA Students’ Union released a statement asking the rent strikers to ‘redirect your efforts by joining us in lobbying the Government’ as the University was unable to provide further financial help. They highlighted the fact that the government had thus far spent ‘NO MONEY to support universities with learning and teaching costs or accommodation fees,’ whilst the eight-week rebate would cost the University £5mn.

In response, the rent strikers pointed to the fact that UEA received £138.75mn in tuition fees alone per year, while the Vice Chancellor lives in what they claim is a £6mn house. They also pointed out that undergraduates will be £27,750 in debt by the time they graduate. In a further statement, the rent strikers also argued that the rent rebate does ‘nothing to offer immediate financial aid to students’ and claimed that, ‘Those who are unable to return home due to personal or mental health factors are not being supported by the University.’

Georgie Gibson, a UEA student and member of the Marxist Society, which supported the efforts of UEA Rent Strike, was extremely critical of the role of the Students’ Union (SU) in undermining the rent strike:

The SU have done everything to undermine the rent movement. The job of a student’s union is to represent the students, and if they don’t think that’s right, they should resign. When you’ve got an SU actively working against the students, it must seem quite radical to not pay your rent. Universities and SUs know how to repress these things through the giving of a rent rebate. As long as you have this system you’re going to have a hostile government with a hostile university and a hostile student’s union, as they all rely on each other.

The SU have done everything to undermine the rent movement.”

Gibson also feels that the SU’s strategy of asking students to email the local Norwich South MP, Clive Lewis, is ineffective:

It’s not what students’ unions are there for. That’s why student pressure works as universities have to concede. What’s Clive Lewis going to do? Maybe he might make a statement to make himself look good if he’s thinking of running for leader again. Maybe, but not very likely, as he’s not in Keir Starmer’s good books. Starmer might raise the issue and Boris Johnson will ignore it.

“You get PowerPoints with voice recordings; it’s not worth nine grand.”

Credit: wikimedia

Whilst recognising the hard work of academic staff attempting to adapt to its challenges, Gibson also argued that online learning isn’t as effective as traditional teaching: 

You get PowerPoints with voice recordings; it’s not worth nine grand. They’re trying their best but it can’t be the same. It is a big investment. Short of getting a mortgage – although I doubt any of us are going to be doing that – it’s the largest amount of money that anyone spends on anything… Also working class students will probably take longer to pay their loans back with ridiculous interest on them. It’s harmful for working class students, and in the case of this year they’re not even getting what universities normally provide.

The UEA has, in some regards, coped well with the pandemic, when compared with other universities. Students have been offered regular testing and outbreaks have been relatively small and well-contained. However, in a market-driven English higher education system, universities such as the UEA rely on student fees and income from accommodation in order to be financially successful. This explains the motivation in bringing students onto to campus paying fees for a largely Zoom-based experience. Whether rent strikes at UEA or elsewhere can force a move away from the pyramid scheme that is British Higher Education remains to be seen. Thus far Boris Johnson, who had his Oxford Classics degree paid for by the taxpayer, appears unmoved.   

Featured image via Pixabay

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