It was 4pm on an October afternoon at Manchester University. Students came out of their accommodation in rage when they found out that the university had implemented metal fences. This was in order to keep students indoors as universities across the country began to implement stricter social distancing measures. This was as a result of an increase in infections after Freshers Week. It led to rent strikes.
Rent strikes and a student survey
Thus began the rise of rent strikes, across the country as well as our beloved region. That story has already been told. What has received less coverage in the media is the aftermath of the rent strikes as we move towards the end of the academic year, where the students left on campus will move back home over the summer.
A conversation I had with a friend ensued after they congratulated me after my first article in North East Bylines. This friend mentioned that their accommodation provider had refused to provide any financial support. An idea came after this conversation. Let’s see if any student who has studied in the North East this year actually benefitted from the rent strikes?
I conducted a student survey, with respondents across different levels, programmes and universities answering the survey. The results surprised me.
Student (in)action in the rent strikes
The first thing that surprised me was that only one student who took part in the survey, had actually taken part in the student rent strikes. This was Zemeriah.
While the student rent strikes were some of the biggest strikes in recent history, it is quite telling that the student community seemed almost resigned to their fate.
For example, an Instagram page called 9K4What formed in the midst of the ever-increasing backlash, but that only received 1.7k followers on Instagram. This is despite the group maintaining an active social media presence presence, having university branches and being pivotal in coordinating one of the most successful modern strikes.
Testimony from Zemariah could provide an explanation for this. When students attempted to take part in rent strikes, their provider “threatened to take legal action and call the University”.
Despite this initial pushback, the mere thought of Zemariah going on a strike was enough for their provider to extend “the time I could pay, and said I could pay in two instalments”.
It’s been better than expected
Despite the negative press received by accommodation providers, both pre-strikes and post-strikes, the individual relationships between private providers and students has been less tension-filled than I had previously thought.
For example, Amy has stated how her experience in accommodation this year was good. She experienced “regular communication, approachable staff”, which she claims has made students more optimistic about the future of relations with accommodation providers.
There have been concerns however, even in the more positive or neutral relations. Francesca found that her relationship with the accommodation provider was good and she chose to “to stay in the accommodation”. However, there were inadequacies including sending emails solely “about covid guidelines and fire safety to be honest”. Furthermore, Francesca alluded to a friend’s negative experience within private accommodation stating that “I do know with one of my friends there had been [issues]”.
“They refused to give any refunds or rent pauses”
However, none of this changes the fact that students such as Sam had a negative experience of being in private accommodation. Under contract with Portland Green, Sam was without any financial support including “rent rebates, cancellations or financial suspensions”. This is even despite the rent strikes that occurred in the North East at the beginning of last semester.
Communication with Portland Green has also been poor, with Sam venting about how there was “miscommunication about rebates; we were told in January that there would be rebates and by April they turned round and said no”. This experience has resulted in a soured relationship with Portland Green. Sam has taken up accommodation under a different provider next year as students felt “trapped into somewhere that hasn’t been a good provider this year”.
Similarly, Zemariah described students’ experience in less than glowing terms as they recalled their provider pressuring them to pay the rent, despite them knowing that “temporarily, my parents were out of their jobs”. However, Zemariah also stated that the accommodation providers were “understanding and helpful to an extent but not as much as I would have liked them to be”, and concluded that “I had a bad experience with them so maybe trying someone else would be better”
The future (bank) holds
How Portland Green treated Sam and friends has led them to believing that accommodation providers “will find loopholes in accommodation contracts so that they don’t have to pay out in future”.
And there is a lot of money on the line when it comes to private student providers in the North East. For example, Sam’s provider offers their cheapest accommodation for £99 a week. Considering that the facilities promised includes social spaces, it was frustrating for students who had to pay full price for facilities that they couldn’t use.
In 2020, the average student had an income of £1,063.70. That income can only pay for two monthsof that particular option. And many students rely on part-time jobs in the hospitality sector that were the first to shut down. This means that the average income could be even lower for some students by the end of this year.
All of this points to the damage that the marketisation of higher education has done. It has been when students have been vulnerable that providers have been at their most greedy. It has also highlighted the wider damage of capitalism on UK society during the pandemic. This was seen when the government decided to end the ban on evictions at the end of last month, meaning that tenants could be homeless.