350 or 44: How many students are engaging in the rent strike?
Since this article was published in print, occupiers were forcibly removed by bailiffs from the Simon Building in the early hours of March 22nd. The University of Manchester insists the occupiers were given several notices of legal action before this issue was taken to the high court. However, in light of this eviction, the previously published statement in this article that there had been ‘no direct engagement between UoM and students involved in the rent strike movement nor the occupiers specifically’, is now incorrect. You can read more about the eviction here. You can read the Student Union’s statement condemning the evictions by force here.
The information on UoM Rent Strike was obtained from an interview with one of the students involved in organising the strike, who has chosen to remain anonymous. For the sake of this article, they have been renamed Jess.
UoM Rent Strike announced their call to strike on the January 2 2023, encouraging students in residences to cancel their direct debit for the January 19 rent payment. Unaffordable rent is the strikers’ primary grievance, with the Guardian reporting that for a lot of students 70, 80 to 90 percent of their maintenance loan “goes on rent”. Not only does Oak House fail to meet meet the NUS definition of affordability, pest infestations and failure to fix structural faults are also driving factors for the movement.
Their three primary demands are: a 30% reduction on future UoM Halls payments and a 30% refund on the October 2022 payment, a commitment to not increasing halls rents for at least 3 years, and a promise not to victimise student rent strikers with disciplinary action or late rent fines.
Having occupied three university buildings on the 3rd of February, occupiers remain in the Simon Building with members of Manchester Leftist Action.
The University of Manchester said their accommodation is comparatively priced compared to other Russell Group Universities and cheaper than other private accommodation in the city, the lowest priced halls have the lowest price increases, for this year that was 1.5%. The UoM spokesperson said: “Rents also include 24/7 support through the Reslife team and security … Unlike most private accommodation all accommodation includes energy bills, water and Wi-Fi. Some halls are also catered. Cleaners visit residences twice a week.
The University informed The Mancunion that they are ‘anecdotally’ aware of 44 rent strikers, in response to a Freedom of Information Request. The University did, however, acknowledge that they do not routinely record this information and have taken this to mean the number of students who have explicitly contacted Credit Control to indicate they are part of the rent strike.
UoM Rent Strike encourages students not to respond to the University’s calls, texts or emails regarding outstanding debt. Jess, involved in organising the strike, suggested this could explain the University’s prediction of only 44 strikers as the ‘majority of people have just been ignoring the calls from the University’.
Jess told The Mancunion the rent strike movement predicts the figure to be closer to 350, although they cannot be sure of an exact figure as students do not have to register with them centrally.
They mainly attribute this prediction to the number of people who have filled out the rent strike’s online form and have been added to their WhatsApp group chat. On January 15, the rent strikers predicted that over 200 students on group chats were holding back over £295,000.
The University of Manchester spokesperson said in response: “Participation figures quoted by students are not correct. They are based on people filling in an open form online and guesses about costs this incurs to the University.”
According to Jess, every few days new students are contacting rent strike. New faces come to the stalls or workshops UoM Rent Strike run to let them know they are withholding rent even though they aren’t yet on the group chat, indicating the number is not restricted to how many members are on the group chats.
According to an FOI sent to the University by the rent strike organisers, the number of students who had not paid their rent on time in the January 2023 period was 934. Jess explained that there are a variety of reasons why students do not pay their rent on time, with a great deal simply forgetting every year, so the Rent Strike movement is aware that not all of these 934 are involved in organised action. However, they do believe roughly a third of this figure is involved in the movement.
The University of Manchester said, “Non-payment of rents this January was comparable to this time in 2022.” The FOI demonstrates that in April 2022 1363 students were late on their rent payments, there was no rent strike at this time.
The Simon Building Occupiers are made up of a rotating group of about 50 students, Jess informed me. Each night varies, but there are typically around 10 people. The organisers encourage students to spend a few nights in the building and then, ‘take a bit of a break, so it’s manageable’. They predict they’ve had around 200 students visit the occupation via workshops they are running out of the Simon building.
The workshops are run by people within the Simon Building occupation, ranging from ‘know your rights’ to legal training sessions as well as political discussions and lessons on radical history. The movement has contacts with other campaign groups and activists around Manchester who help them out and each session has an average turnout of 30 students.
A first-year sociology student, who recently joined the movement told The Mancunion: “I found out about the rent strike through a poster and then found the social media. I was really inspired by it all and wanted to get involved so I attended a patch-making workshop. It was really cool to see the community and organising space they’d created. Since then I’ve become more involved and really enjoyed helping with the rent strike and occupation.”
UoM Rent Strike has also shared on their social media that the University has threatened punitive academic action towards those with outstanding debt. Emails to the rent strikers from last year had stated the phrase, ‘Please note if your status shows “A restriction has been placed on your records”, this means you have a debt to the University. If this is a tuition fee debt then you must contact the Credit Control Office… You will not be able to complete course unit selection until your outstanding tuition fee debts have been cleared”.
Emails sent to rent strikers this year, however, have had the word ‘tuition’ removed. The rent strikers described this as ‘deliberately misleading’. The statement in emails sent on March 2nd states, ‘you will not be able to view your results until your outstanding debt has been cleared’. Unspecific about whether this is tuition or accommodation debt, Jess attests this ‘is to imply that it is about rent when it isn’t about rent’.
The University of Manchester spokesperson said: “Letters sent to people with fees due to be paid have been updated this year and rather than send a letter which does not distinguish between the type of debt (i.e. including the phrase ‘If this is a tuition fee debt’, if it is about accommodation debt this wording is not necessary).” The University clarified the letters sent by Credit Control when a student has unpaid debt, are separate to disciplinary letters received by students withholding rent payments.
Jess explained that legally the University can issue fines and potentially terminate your contract for accommodation, but they are not allowed to prohibit academic re-enrolment. The University confirmed in an FOI that accommodation debt will not affect academic progression and no such policy exists, despite their email correspondence with strikers.
The University have no recorded data for how many students participated in the rent strikes of 2020-2021, which coincided with protests surrounding COVID restrictions and fences in Fallowfield Campus. Whereas UoM Rent Strike predict this figure to have been roughly 200.
UoM Rent Strike is hoping to have twice as many students involved in the next payment on the April 25.
The University confirmed there has been no direct engagement* between UoM and students involved in the rent strike movement nor the occupiers specifically, “who have been unlawfully occupying University buildings”. Although, they have a positive dialogue with the Students’ Union and continue to engage with students about cost-of-living support.
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “: “We understand and support the rights of our students to peaceful protest – that freedom has been reflected in our response to these ongoing occupations over several weeks. However, a very small number of students have regrettably been involved in action that is unlawful and has significantly disrupted the experience of other students and staff across the University. This includes health and safety breaches, entry to private office spaces, and injury caused to colleagues. This behaviour is simply not acceptable.”
“Our communications to the occupiers have explained our concerns about the occupations and their impact on our University community and have included formal notice to leave on several occasions. Despite those efforts, and ongoing engagement between the students and the Students’ Union, the occupations have not ended.”
“As a consequence, it has now regrettably become necessary for us to commence the process of issuing legal proceedings to regain possession of our buildings. In addition, we have now notified a number of those involved that they will face formal University disciplinary action.”
“We are an organisation that takes great pride in its sense of community and its wonderful students and staff, so it is highly regrettable that these matters are resulting in us having to take action.”
You can read the full University of Manchester statement here.
*This statement about ‘no direct engagement’ was correct at the time of writing.