Over 1,000 students are on rent strike in Bristol

"It’s unacceptable that the university told students to come and live in halls when they can’t keep us safe."

Around 1400 students at the University of Bristol are participating in an ongoing rent strike against the university’s response to the pandemic.  

Organisers says the rent strike marks the largest university rent strike ‘in decades’, with over £2m reportedly being withheld.

Students are protesting having to pay full rent despite what they say is major disruption to their student experience.

The strike has been going on for a month, and after meetings with university management, some of the protesters’ initial demands – including sanitary products in food boxes and clarification of the role of security – have already been met. The university has offered a 10 day rent discount to students who pay their rent in full by February 2021 – but activists believe it does not go far enough.

The government has ordered a full transition to online learning from 9th December, giving students the option to stay at home.

Universities across the UK faced anger for continuing in-person teaching during the pandemic, with many pushing students to return after the summer break.

A spokesperson for Bristol Cut the Rent said in a statement: “It’s unacceptable that the university told students to come and live in halls when they can’t keep us safe.”

Students in Bristol will be allowed to go home during a six day window in December – but will still have to pay rent.

This Friday, the rent strikers will present demands to the university’s trustees calling for a 30% rent reduction for all students, penalty-free releases from their contracts, and deposit returns for international students.

Students and concerned members organised a ‘mass email action’ to flood Vice Chancellor Hugh Brady’s inbox on Monday. University staff have also coordinated a letter of solidarity.

Saranya Thambirajah, 19, said: “We’re calling on members of the university community, and the wider public to stand with our cause by emailing [Vice Chancellor] Hugh Brady in support of the rent strike and our demands.

“We hope that a wide outpouring of support will show the Vice Chancellor, and the Board of Trustees, how much our concerns have resonated within the university and beyond, and encourage them to engage with our demands accordingly.”

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol 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.

“We have decided to provide a 10 day rent rebate for students living in University accommodation in response to the Government’s directive for teaching to be moved online between 3 and 9 December, allowing time for students to travel home safely should they wish to. This mirrors the rent rebate we offered in the summer term, when teaching was moved online during the first national lockdown.

“We have always pledged to act reasonably, reviewing our position as the national picture changes. 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.

“We have taken on board feedback from Cut the Rent and Bristol Students’ Union and welcome further discussions, but this is an issue affecting all universities at the moment and our actions are guided by Public Health England and the authorities to limit the spread of coronavirus.”

The university has pledged that students withholding rent ‘will suffer no detriment to their educational progress’.

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol told LFF: “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…

“We have always pledged to act reasonably, reviewing our position as the national picture changes. 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 spokesperson added: “We have taken on board feedback from Cut the Rent and Bristol Students’ Union and welcome further discussions, but this is an issue affecting all universities at the moment and our actions are guided by Public Health England and the authorities to limit the spread of coronavirus.”

The student union is actively supporting the strike. A statement from the student union last month said: “We fully support the rights of our students to self-organise and raise their frustrations to the University in this highly important area, and we stand in solidarity with them. The Officer Team have been actively lobbying for the university to offer rent refunds to those in lockdown for weeks, and fully support students in their demands.”

The SU said it would be providing students with advice and highlighting rent strikers’ demands to the university.

Update: A quote from the University of Bristol was added shortly after publication.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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