‘Hit Them Where it Hurts’: inside the Largest Student Rent Strike in Recent History

Students at the University of Bristol (UoB) are staging one of the largest rent strikes in recent history with over £1m being withheld from the university. The strike, driven by students’ desire for a fair deal, and for recognition of their concerns, has won significant concessions from UoB and shows the power collective action can command. Is this the beginning of a new wave of student activism? Through interviews with some of the strike’s organizers, TBA looks into what the strike is, how it works, and what the future might hold. 

Students arriving at the University of Bristol (UoB) to begin their first year of studies back in September 2020 knew they wouldn’t have a normal student experience, but even by the adjusted standards of life in a pandemic they were shocked by what they found. 

From a promise of “blended learning” that turned out to be anything but, to inhospitable accommodation, the experience of 2020’s cohort of first years was not what the brochure advertised. 

‘The simple fact is… [UoB] advertised a service, they haven’t given us that service, and we’re still paying full price for it’ as Hamish, 19, who has deferred his studies to next year, put it.  

This gap between expectation – based on what UoB had promised – and reality, whilst still being expected to pay full fees, led to frustrations and motivated some students to consider their options for taking action. 

The Story of the Strike

The UK is no stranger to student protests. In 2010, students protested rising tuition fees and costs of living. In 2015, students across London staged a rent strike, also in protest against exploitative living costs. 

In part inspired by these movements, on October 14th last year a small group of UoB students decided to call a rent strike. Withholding rent would, as Louis, 19, an original organizer of the strikes, put it ‘hit them where it hurts’. 

With just ten day until the first semester’s rent was due, organizers had to work fast. Organising on Facebook under the banner of Bristol, Cut the Rent and on Twitter, the strike made 7 demands of UoB.

Rent strike demands:
1. no repercussions for strikers
2. No-penalty contract releases
3. 30% cut for whole year
4. Outdoor access
5. Food boxes to cater for all needs
6. Regular mental health check-ins
7. Full transparency on powers and role of security staff
Image credit: Bristol Rent Strike

They also made use of Google Forms to quickly bring strikers on board. The methods worked. By the deadline came on October 24th, over 1300 students, representing over £1m in revenue to the university, had agreed to strike. 

Facing one of the largest rent strikes in recent history, UoB soon came to the negotiating table, and, after meeting with strikers on October 26th, made immediate concessions. These included a no repercussions policy for strikers, a no evictions policy, and the facility for students to request sanitary products with their food boxes. 

Throughout the autumn term, strikers kept up the pressure. On November 16th, they held a day of action encouraging students, staff and members of the public to email Hugh Brady, UoB Vice-Chancellor with a pre-drafted letter of complaint about the treatment of students. 

Pressure came from outside as well as rent strikes began at universities across the country, including Manchester, where, on November 25th, strikers announced on Twitter that they had won a 30% rent rebate for the entire semester.

Eight days later, UoB bowed to the pressure and announced a 30% rebate for seven weeks over Christmas. Whilst not fulfilling the student’s demand entirely, this represented a major win for the strikers. 

In January, a new lockdown prohibited many students from returning to halls. Strikers called for a full rent rebate for the time students were not in accommodation, and for students to be able to exit their accommodation contracts. UoB eventually granted concessions on this, too, but again failed to fulfill the striker’s full demands as the January rebate didn’t apply to anyone who had stayed in halls after January 5th.  

By this point the rebates had become so complex that some students were missing out simply because they didn’t know they were eligible. 

“I’ve been radicalised into disliking university management”

Despite the victories of the strikers, relations with UoB were hindered by the latter’s unwillingness to change, even after acknowledging student’s concerns. This was frustrating for Hamish, who believes that ‘in an ideal world, we would be collaborating right now.’

Two blunders by UoB have further strained their relationship with students. In November, strikers in receipt of bursaries (or living allowances) received emails informing them that their bursaries would be used to pay off outstanding rent debt. Later, in March, UoB threatened to refuse to give references to strikers seeking second year accommodation. 

UoB quickly U-turned on both these policies, but not before they had the effect on students like Louis, of leaving them ‘radicalised into disliking University management.’

Since the references U-turn, relations between UoB and strikers have been subdued, and the deadline for the final rent payment of the year passed on.April 24th with little fanfare. It remains now to be seen whether UoB will return to negotiations, or whether they simply wait it out in the hope the strike will lose momentum on its own. 

This moment of pause gives time for reflection on what the legacy of these strikes, not just in Bristol but across the UK, will be. 

Is this the beginning of a new wave of student activism?

The strike has certainly galvanized students, not just the 1300 in Bristol, but thousands more across 55 universities that saw rent strikes in the last year. For many, including both Hamish and Louis, the strike has been their first experience of activism and direct action, perhaps signalling a new wave of students emboldened to see activism as a method of change.

However, the strike may yet prove a victim of its own success. 

Strength in its early days came from unanimous agreement on the demands being made of UoB. But the predominant focus on rent rebates has led to an attrition rate amongst the strikers, according to Louis, as some of those who have obtained a satisfactory refund from UoB have chosen to leave the strike. From 1300 strikers in October, only around 1000 remained by January. 

Rent strikers protest in Manchester. they carry a banner with the hashtag Rent Strike.
Rent strikes in Manchester (license: creative commons)

For Hamish, this is all part of the plan. The strike was never meant to achieve anything more than the seven demands issued in October. By contrast, Louis, regrets the lost opportunity to use the strike to push for more ‘transformative action’ and to talk about wider issues like the commodification of housing and the marketization of education. 

Although very coherent around the seven demands, the strike lacked the necessary solidarity to think beyond those: ‘maybe we didn’t talk enough about…how important it was to see yourself as part of a collective in this process.’ Consequently, there’s still a long way to go before we see a ‘properly radical student population.’

Yet, the strike has undoubtedly had a transformative effect on Louis, who is already looking to what happens next: ‘it’s about what we do with the people who’ve been engaged and where we take it.’

He has plans to create a students tenancy union in Bristol, to help educate students about tenants’ rights, especially second year students as they become first-time renters, and perhaps even leading further rent strikes if necessary. 

‘I wouldn’t have been doing [the tenants union] if it wasn’t for [the strike], and I think that’s probably true for most people. It’s something that’s very much born out of [the strike].’

Whether the strikers achieve all of their demands remains to be seen. Even if not, the strike has achieved much to be proud of already.

Although this may not be the catalyst for a new wave of young activists, it is perhaps important to see the strike as part of a general shift – alongside such other youth-dominated movements such as the Youth Strikes for Climate and Corbynism – towards a more rebellious mindset that may yet become a movement with revolutionary capability.

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