Universities have become a hotspot for Covid transmission. Many universities have found themselves under fire for bringing students back to expensive accommodation without adequate safeguards and support for students and staff exposed to coronavirus on campus. Kate Bradley from rs21 spoke to Connor Nicol, a first-year English student at the University of Bristol, who has been organising a rent strike with Bristol Cut the Rent. Only a couple of weeks into the campaign, they have 1300 students signed up to strike.
The coronavirus pandemic has been ongoing for a while now, but a lot of students have had to return to accommodation in September despite the risks. Before you went back to Bristol, did you believe there would be face-to-face teaching, and has there been any?
We were told at Bristol that there would be a ‘blended learning’ approach. We weren’t really sure what that meant, to be honest. So far, my course is delivered with a fair amount of in-person teaching, but it is inevitable that it will have to be suspended at some point, because there are so many people from my classes who have been self-isolating.
When you do have to go into face-to-face teaching, do you feel that the guidance and policy provided by the university is keeping you safe?
I don’t feel safe with the in-person teaching. The lecturers are doing all they can, but it is still 10 to 12 people in each seminar group with little social distancing. We wear masks, but the impact masks have is limited so it doesn’t feel that safe.
Have you found that there have been quite a few cases?
Yes. My halls haven’t been hit too hard – we haven’t had to go into a full-hall lockdown, and my flat is quite small as well, but many people I know in Bristol have had to self-isolate. In my accommodation, there are a few flats who are self-isolating at the moment. Using the communal areas like the lifts and the study areas is worrying because you don’t know who has been there and whether or not they are isolating, so you need to constantly sanitise whenever you go downstairs.
You mentioned there that you’re not allowed to go outside sometimes. How is the university enforcing that in halls that are isolating? Is it impacting on students’ mental health?
Each hall has a security team. There’s not much enforcement of self-isolating for those of us in halls that haven’t been locked down, but when blocks have been locked down, we have heard that there’s been overbearing security monitoring people coming in and out of flats, or shining torches into people’s rooms to see if there are other people there.
It is definitely impacting on students’ mental health, especially those who have had to be locked down. The way halls are you don’t really have any access to outdoor space in your own flat, so quite often people are stuck in their own small rooms for two weeks not able to do much else or go out for fresh air. A lot of people have been struggling on the mental health front.
We saw some news recently about how students have been having parties and going out, and this has been blamed by some for high transmission rates at university. What do you think makes universities hotspots for coronavirus transmission and how much of a role do you think student lifestyle choices are making in that?
There are people having parties, especially in freshers’ week, but realistically the university must have known that was going to happen. We were brought back weeks before our courses started in some cases. I think the university must have anticipated it: when you bring back a bunch of 18-20 year olds into small shared living spaces, you must know that there is going to be socialising.
There have been parties and gatherings happening, but watching the coverage, it is exaggerated. I haven’t been to any big parties and many people I know have been avoiding large social gatherings. Students have been taking coronavirus seriously. When people have to isolate, they do isolate properly.
Given that the university could have known there would be socialising, why do you think they brought you back to campus?
It is really just for the rent. Many people I know have courses which are entirely online now, so there’s a general feeling that we’ve been brought back just so the university continues to make a profit from student accommodation.
So this is a good moment to segue! You’re organising a rent strike with Bristol: Cut the Rent. When and why did you decide to go on strike?
I joined a couple of days after the initial discussions started happening. At the beginning, there was a group of students who were talking to the student union. I think they were largely students who had been self-isolating who felt very pissed off that they hadn’t been given any support by the university.
Before we called the rent strike, we talked to the student union about problems we had, and they took it to the university who just ignored it for as long as possible. That was what pushed us to the rent strike – it made it clear that there was no other way of going about it.
I have to give props to the student union, because they have been great throughout this. They helped us organise, and they put out official comms telling people that they support the rent strike. Word got out and we declared the start of the campaign on the 14th October, and it grew really quickly, which is good.
How many people do you think are on rent strike right now? Have you missed payments yet?
Our payments were due today, so we’ve officially started! We handed our demands in yesterday [23rd October] and had a little demonstration outside the main university building. We invited some local press down, stuck our demands to the wall and gave them to a receptionist.
We have 1300 names on a pledge to rent strike, but we know there are a couple of duplicates there and we don’t have an exact number for how many people have actually withheld rent. We did some phone-banking over the weekend making sure people had cancelled payments, and we’ve got over 1000 confirmed names now, which feels really good.
That is the power we have over the university, which is why I’m feeling really hopeful about it. I think it’s the biggest student rent strike in recent history in Britain. There was another one in UCL a couple of years back, which got over 1000. We have got some real leverage. Hopefully if it goes well, it will encourage more students at other universities to take action.
What are your demands?
Our main demands for the university are about rent. We want a 30% reduction in rent for the year, because ultimately we aren’t getting access to communal facilities, and we’re paying for cleaning which isn’t happening because it’s not safe for cleaners to come into accommodation where the students are self-isolating. Basically, we’re paying for nothing more than a small room.
We also want no repercussions for anyone who takes part in the rent strike – so that means no higher rent to make up for missed payments, no-one being kicked out of their accommodation, and no-one suffering academically.
We want no-penalty contract releases, because there’s a lot of people who are here now who can’t really leave because of their contracts, so even if they did just go home, they’d have to pay rent on their flats after they had left. We want people to have the opportunity to just leave if they are not enjoying the experience. Tied into that, we want deposits refunded to international students, because we have heard from students who are still living in their home country but who are paying rent, and they have had a large deposit taken even though they haven’t moved in yet, which really is not fair.
We also want the university to commit to no reduction in staff – no staff being fired or dismissed as a result of lost income from rent reductions or unpaid rent.
In addition to these, we have a number of demands we want the university to commit to in relation to enforcing the lockdown. We want the university to commit to delivering food boxes, on time, containing fresh food and catering to dietary requirements including allergies. At the moment, some people are getting fresh food delivered on time, and other people have just been getting canned goods, no vegetables at all, delivered two days late. We’ve heard of people who are coeliacs being given boxes full of foods containing gluten, which has left them with nothing to eat.
For locked down halls, we need the university to provide cleaning supplies, sanitary products and menstrual products, because we’ve heard of people running out of basics like toilet paper, or being on their period and running out of supplies with no way to get more. When people are self-isolating on their own, they can get people to just drop stuff at the door, but in halls where everyone is locked down, there’s really no way to go out and get things yourself, or get anyone to deliver things.
We want the university to commit to allowing some outside time for flats which have no positive cases within locked-down halls. You can’t leave people locked in their flats for two weeks with no outside time and no fresh air, especially when some flats have no real source of natural light because their windows look out on a brick wall.
We want regular mental health check-ins from the university because it is awful being left on your own for two weeks. The university has a duty of care to its students.
The final demand is about the issue with security. We want the university to be transparent about the powers, roles and actions that the security can undertake. We want the security guards to wear name badges in case there are any safeguarding issues and we want to know what the security can and can’t tell you to do.
Those sound like really wide-ranging and useful demands – how did you come up with them?
Before we called the rent strike, we drafted a couple of preliminary demands about the rent, and then we announced it and people started signing up. Once we had a fair few people on board, we started having Zoom meetings to discuss what we wanted to get out of it. We were hearing from students in locked-down halls telling us what the university was doing wrong, basically, so then we came up with the demands as a collective and committed to those from the start.
I noticed there was a demand in there about staff cuts – have many staff been involved in this and is there a feeling of solidarity between students & staff on this?
Yeah, we added that one after hearing from facilities staff, where there was a feeling that students are doing this with a disregard for the impact they could have on jobs or staff working conditions. We put that in to show that we are standing in solidarity with staff as well. It is not just that we feel like students are getting the hard end of the bargain – we think staff are being screwed over by the university as well.
Members of the rent strike and the student union are also talking to Unison and UNITE, who represent cleaning and maintenance staff in the halls. We want to talk with the unions to make sure we are standing with them as well – we don’t want to do anything which is going to be detrimental to staff.
There haven’t been formal talks with the UCU about the rent strike, just because it’s a bit separate from the academic side of things. Still, the feeling I am getting from lecturers and UCU members is that they’re fully on board with the strike.
Just thinking about the practicalities of the strike, is all the accommodation of the rent strikers with the same housing provider, or are there several providers involved?
That was a bit of a panic for us, because we didn’t consider that at first. As we got more people on board, we looked into it and, whilst the vast majority of the housing is owned by the university, we realised there are a couple of blocks owned by Unite student accommodation and a couple of other student housing providers. So we’ve been warning students who live there that the risks are potentially higher because they have fewer people involved and it is a private housing provider.
One block who have a private provider have organised their own rent strike in conjunction with us, and they’ve got around half of the students in that particular accommodation on board with the rent strike now. They are also being supported by the student union, so that should go ahead. We were concerned that there is maybe less collective bargaining power and more of a worry of eviction with rent striking against disparate housing providers, but the numbers signed up mean that particular building has a lot of leverage.
We have the backing of the student union and we’ve been in contact with ACORN, who are providing eviction resistance support. Those in less protected halls will have support, which is the main thing.
How much pushback have you had so far from the university?
It is early days really. We’ve felt like the university has been shunning contact – we’ve tried to reach out to them about certain things and they’ve sent bland press releases in reply. When press have reached out to them for comment as well, it’s just been the same thing. They say they are doing everything they can, sending fresh food and cleaning supplies, which we’ve seen isn’t always true.
We have our first meeting with the university on Monday, but even then, we don’t think they’re taking it that seriously at the moment. They’ve set aside about 45 minutes and they don’t have their treasurer involved. They will take it more seriously as it goes on, because, as we were saying, it’s a lot of money being withheld.
Great! Good luck with the strike, and thank you for speaking to me. Let us know if there’s any way we can support the campaign.