Whether it was their first year or their last, every student who left home and set off for university in September knew that this year was going to be unlike any other. COVID-19 was looming, and although students were concerned about the impact this would have on their mental health and ability to socialise while at university, many also had faith that their universities would be prepared for their arrival.
Unfortunately for Newcastle students, like many others, their academic year has been repeatedly plagued by issues such as overzealous COVID wardens, demonisation by popular media, and a lack of face-to-face teaching (for many students, none at all!) persisting throughout the year. This has left students feeling aggrieved at paying regular rent prices for a sub-par experience when the vast majority could have had the same quality of education delivered whilst staying at home, especially given the university’s encouragement of students to come to the city.
After months of protest and pressure, a January 4th update from the Vice Chancellor included some promises for students who have been let down by the university. Although something is better than nothing, there are pretty glaring flaws in these provisions, and they should be viewed as an example of the potential for further change, rather than an end in itself.
Whilst every student has a right to be frustrated at Newcastle University’s actions (or lack thereof), it is difficult to argue that those in university-owned and maintained accommodation have not been subject to some of the worst experiences and treatment. Most living in university accommodation have been doing so with relative strangers, and a lack of opportunities to socialise outside of their halls has had a substantial impact on their ability to enjoy student life.
As part of the Vice Chancellor’s announcement, students living in university-owned accommodation will not be charged for the weeks they are not at Newcastle, with refunds being issued at the end of the year. This is great news given the early-December departure dates of many students, and the university’s request that students try and stay off campus until February at the earliest. There are, however, a few flaws.
Most obviously, there has been nothing said about potential rent reductions for the weeks in which students have been in their accommodation, despite their often awful experiences. Additionally, this scheme does little for students who want to return to their university accommodation as quickly as possible, often due to mental health or educational needs. Although many rent strikers will and should feel proud of their achievements, there is certainly significant room for improved terms on Newcastle’s part.
Sadly there wasn’t any meaningful information offered to students in private accommodation, although the Vice Chancellor has promised to continue to work with the Universities Minister and Housing Secretary to try and find a solution. Although hands are relatively tied in comparison to the control the university has over their own accommodation, it’s always possible that some sort of subsidisation for private rents will become available, so make sure your voice is heard!
In the meantime, it’s always worth a shot to contact your landlord directly to ask for some form of a rent reduction. Despite this being an uncertain time for all financially, there’s always a (small) chance that landlords will have some sympathy for students, particularly those who were relying on a job which has now been disrupted to pay their rent. You can also get involved in holding the university to account over other areas in which they do have substantial control, such as mental health services and academic safety nets.
Rent Strikes and Getting Involved
Rent striking is simply the withholding of rental payments in order to exercise some leverage to ensure that platitudes aren’t the only solution offered to student issues. This has already proven to be a successful way to make sure students are taken seriously here, and at other universities such as Liverpool. If you haven’t already gotten involved and would like to, there are a few groups set up who are carrying out organised activism that are open to all.
NCL Rent Strike are a group who have pulled together to promote collective rent striking and point people towards some really useful resources. I contacted them for their reaction to the recent announcement, and received this message from strikers Anna and Harry:
“I suppose our main message to students still deciding if rent striking is worth it, is that just because our university have chosen not to charge us rent for the time we’ve been at home, it doesn’t mean the fight isn’t over. It is a small win, sure, but we need to keep challenging unis until they take us seriously and work with us to create a healthier environment for their students. While rent striking has its risks, they are minimal, and we wouldn’t ask any students to do anything we aren’t doing as well… it has been shown through student anecdotes and testimonies that mental health services and to a lesser extent other systems such as financial and wellbeing services have been failing students. Not including the issue of Operation Oak showing examples of a student being harassed by police/COVID marshals, which even the SU has written to the Newcastle City Council about. Rent Striking is our financial leverage in order to bring awareness to these issues and also to put pressure on the University to make the essential changes to improve Student Life to an acceptable standard. Rent Striking is not just about the issue of rent but the entirety of the failings of the University.”
It’s clear that rent striking is not just about students wanting a bit of a refund, but that the need to take such action is driven by consistent failings of universities to treat students appropriately. The Newcastle chapter of the 9k4what? movement has a host of links to petitions addressing issues related to rent strikes and is always looking for more support. Even if you don’t feel as strongly about these concerns as others do, I urge you to lend your voice. Student solidarity and collective action has, and will continue to be, an extremely powerful tool for change; you’d be surprised at what can be accomplished!