Interview with University of Manchester student rent strikers (@rentstrikeUoM)
This week, students at the University of Manchester joined a growing list of student groups nationwide who are launching rent strikes in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We speak to one of their student organisers.
First, can you outline what the situation is that students have found themselves in since terms started?
Since terms started we at Manchester have been told that we will have no face to face teaching despite moving into halls under the expectation that this would be provided. Within a few weeks there were hundreds of covid-19 cases among students. Nearly every flat in my halls was isolating, and the same seemed to be the case on all the big student group chats I was part of. When we asked for support the Uni emailed us advising us to break the law by leaving our flats with masks on for laundry or post. They provided boxes of free food but in the last two days of our isolation. It was too little, too late. We are not getting what we paid for. Our safety has been sacrificed for profit.
Are students looking to strike in university or privately owned halls?
Our campaign is university owned halls only. We would stand in solidarity with anyone campaigning in private halls but it would overcomplicate what we are trying to achieve to be in negotiations with the uni and private companies.
How receptive are students to the idea — do they generally feel comfortable with the idea of taking the action of a rent strike, or is there an element of political education needed to get people to sign up to the campaign?
We have found students to be very keen to take some form of action because they feel exploited by the university, but many of them did not know what a rent strike is. We have used our social media, especially @uomrentstrike to educate people about it as a form of direct action. Some of them have been afraid of being kicked off their courses or made homeless so we explained why those are not a worry. The university can’t kick someone off a course for a non-academic offence, and the process of eviction takes weeks in which you can just pay rent late and not be evicted. We don’t think it will get to that stage because there are enough of us to present a PR nightmare for the university.
What are the immediate next steps for the rent strike organisers? How are you organising the strike?
The Friday just passed was rent day. Now it has passed, we can begin more serious negotiations with the university about our demands.
What are the challenges you are facing?
It can be hard to tell how many of the people who have signed up to rent strike or joined the chat have already cancelled their Direct Debits. We have been getting reassuring numbers from Instagram polls asking who has already done it.
What — if anything — has the response of the university been?
In the first week after we emailed them they replied saying they would look at our email but nothing more. The deadline we gave them for a response then passed and we called the rent strike. Yesterday they emailed us saying they are “committed to blended learning”, which ignores the reality that online and online is not a blend. It made no apology for deceiving students about how teaching would be delivered to get us to move on campus.
In response to our complaints about unacceptable delays for example in getting fridges fixed they did not acknowledge there was any fault with staff. They responded to repeated burglaries by saying we should follow guidance to keep our windows closed and doors locked. Windows have been broken in these burglaries so blaming it on the victims is absurd. They defended their choice to give students the option of on and off campus learning in the first semester because a survey of students showed that more than 75% wanted to move on campus. This doesn’t address the fact that living conditions have been unsafe and the university has prioritised profit over our wellbeing.
How can people reading this support your campaign?
Visibility is definitely our biggest challenge right now. As students with all teaching online we are only able to interact with our flats. This makes it really difficult to get the word out. Social media is great but we need as much conversation about the rent strike drummed up as possible. Endorsements from organisations and high profile individuals have also been really helpful.
Greater Manchester Housing Action stand in solidarity with student rent strikers at the University of Manchester. Support their campaign and find out more by following them on Instagram @uomrentsrike and on Twitter @rentstrikeUoM.
25 October 2020