Rent strikers at the University of Manchester aren’t just protesting the cost of living crisis – they are building a movement with trade unions to fight the marketisation of higher education.

A students take part in a rally in solidarity with striking university staff. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

On Bonfire Night 2020, the University of Manchester undertook extreme measures against Covid-19 at students’ first-year halls complex in Fallowfield. The university erected £11,000 worth of metal fencing to divide Fallowfield’s halls and block its exits, increased security presence and implemented strict ID checks for students leaving and arriving at their accommodation. 

Students who were already frustrated at the university’s response to the lockdown—stuck in cramped rented accommodation, paying £9,250-a-year tuition fees for Zoom lectures—reacted furiously to the intense policing of their living space. Hundreds came out of their flats in protest, tearing down the fences in an expression of anger at their mistreatment. Yet, this wasn’t the orgy of reactionary violence the right-wing press portrayed. 

The students soon channelled their anger into a broader social and political movement. They organised a rent strike to demand rent reductions, winning a 30 percent rent rebate worth up to £4 million. By Winter 2021, the movement went national, with students at 55 out of 140 universities in the UK going on rent strike, winning rebates from Dundee to Cambridge.

Despite platitudes from the University of Manchester in the aftermath of the protests, three years on, the treatment of students, particularly young students, isn’t any better. And in response to further rent increases and unfit living conditions in student halls, the movement has revived.  

Cost of Living Crisis

This year, the movement is bigger and more ambitious than in 2020. With inflation soaring well above increases in maintenance loans (inflation is running at 9.2% while loans increased by just 2.8%) , students are being pushed to action after finding they don’t have enough to live on. 

An activist and organiser at the University of Manchester, Fraser McGuire, told Tribune, ‘What the university doesn’t realise is that, with the cost of living crisis combined with rent increases, many of us just physically can’t afford to pay it.’

Fraser describes the mobilising effect of the cost of living crisis ‘It’s really reaching breaking point. I spoke to a lot of students in January about the rent strike, and a lot of them said things like, “I’m not really politically active, and I don’t know as much as I should, but I’m not going to be able to afford my rent, so I know something has to be done.”’ 

There are currently 350 students taking part in a rent strike, and organisers are looking to build ahead of the upcoming rent due date in April. ‘If they don’t find a way of either breaking the rent strike or giving in to the demands, then the amount of money being withheld could hit over £1.5 million.’

Occupations and Hostile Management

In their attempt to put the university under maximum pressure, students at Manchester are adopting new tactics beyond rent strikes. Since February, activists have occupied three main buildings on campus. They are demanding a 30 percent rent reduction, that 40 percent of student halls be made genuinely affordable, a one-off £1,500 cost of living payment and a support fund for students, and for management to meet the demands of striking UCU university staff in their dispute. 

Speaking anonymously, one activist spoke to Tribune about the occupation of the John Owens Building, where the University’s senior management’s offices are located. ‘Every single door and window was locked from the inside; we used filing cabinets, chairs, and tables to barricade it physically. Security tried on multiple days to breach through with physical force. We left when we’d made our point that the university is totally unwilling to listen to students.’ The occupation of the John Owens Building ended after a week, but other occupations are ongoing, including in the university’s Simon Building, and look set to be escalated in the coming weeks.

Nearly a month after the first occupation, the movement’s resolve remains strong, but so does management’s intransigence. Students claim that the hostility of on-campus security has intensified, with security guards forcing their way into occupations, mocking and harassing activists on social media, and calling the police on activists. 

Students see the decision to involve the police as a cynical escalation; activism now carries the risk of arrests and charges. In one instance, security called the police after failing to prevent a delivery of food and toiletries to student occupiers, alleging they had been attacked. In response, a patrol of six police cars and vans arrived to threaten arrests before leaving. One activist told Tribune, ‘The University must have said something that wasn’t true; if they could have proved anything, the police wouldn’t have left.’

Activists claim that the aggressive tactics of university security are part of a broader attempt at intimidation. Students are being threatened with formal disciplinary action to expel them from their studies, and the university is considering obtaining a possession order to end their occupations. 

Solidarity With the Labour Movement

The students, however, are not in their fight alone. The local branch of UCU has supported the wider movement and expressed its solidarity, condemning the actions of the university’s management and declaring its support for students’ direct action. 

The student movement has, in turn, provided solidarity and practical support for UCU members during their ongoing industrial dispute over pay, pensions and casualisation, joining picket lines and handing out ‘gifts like food, like hot baked goods, pastries.’ 

Fraser articulates staff and students’ shared struggle against the marketisation of higher education. ‘We’ve been working with the UCU on messaging. We’re both explaining to students that we are all losing out when the university is run for profit. Staff are losing out on pensions, hours and working conditions; we’re losing out as our rent goes up, getting fewer contact hours and things like that. I think it’s been so successful. 

For the rent strikers, it also goes beyond the fight at universities. They see their struggle as linked to the wave of industrial action that has swept the nation. ‘We had a statement that we presented to the university about avoiding punishments for rent strikers and occupiers, and that was signed by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Nadia Whittome, as well as trade union leaders. We had Alex Gordon of the RMT, Sarah Woolley of the BFAWU, and many union branches. A success of the campaign is how we’ve shown the importance of students as a group within the broader labour movement whose interests often get sidelined.’

A National Student Movement

With the next rent payment due in April and the cost of living crisis showing little sign of abating, activists are looking to increase their financial leverage against universities. The University of Manchester’s position as the head of the group of Russell Group universities makes it a crucial target for building a movement. One anonymous activist said, ‘We’re fighting the university. If we win, get fairer rents, and escape serious disciplinary action, then I don’t see why every other university in the country wouldn’t go out on rent strike.’

The show of strength at the movement’s latest rally is testament to the growing feeling of solidarity and organisation amongst students. On Wednesday, Durham, Lancaster, Nottingham and Glasgow students’ groups travelled to Manchester to share tactics and ideas to help those planning occupations and rent strikes. 

For those in Manchester and the growing student movement, this safety in numbers is crucial in pushing back against increasingly hostile institutions. If one person withheld their rent, then they probably would have been evicted by now, but the fact that there are hundreds of us means they can’t. If they evict hundreds of students, their reputation would never recover.’

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