EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Manchester Uni Rent Strikers

Support for the University of Manchester accommodation rent strike has grown further, following news today of prison-like fencing being put up surrounding the halls. We got in touch with the freshers involved in the strike to get to the root of their cause.

 

What has your university experience been like since term commenced in September?

Since term’s started, we at Manchester have been told that we will have no face to face teaching, despite moving into halls under the expectation that this would be provided. Within a few weeks there were hundreds of Covid-19 cases among students. Nearly every flat in our halls was isolating, and the same seemed to be the case on all the big student group chats we were part of. When we asked for support, the university emailed us advising us to break the law by leaving our flats with masks on for laundry or post. They provided boxes of free food, but only in the last two days of our isolation, and the food went out of date very quickly. It was too little, too late. We are not getting what we paid for. Our safety has been sacrificed for profit.

What is the current number of participants in your rent strike, and how did it begin?

A group of first years found each other on group chats and began to organise. We believe the current number to be just over 200.

Are students looking to rent strike in university or privately owned halls?

Our campaign is in regards to university owned halls only. We would stand in solidarity with anyone campaigning in private halls, however it would overcomplicate what we are trying to achieve to be in negotiations with both Manchester University and private companies.

How receptive are students to the idea of striking?

We have found students to be very keen to take some form of action, largely because they feel exploited by the university. Many of them did not know what a rent strike is however. We have used our social media, especially @uomrentstrike to educate people about it as a form of direct action. Some of them have been afraid of being kicked off their courses or being made homeless, so we explained why those are not a worry. The university can’t kick someone off a course for a non-academic offence, and the process of eviction takes weeks, in which case you can just pay rent late and not be evicted. We don’t think it will get to that stage because there are enough of us to present a PR nightmare for the university.

What are the immediate next steps for the rent strike organisers?

Rent day has recently passed, so we can begin more serious negotiations with the university about our demands.

What challenges are you facing?

It can be hard to tell how many of the people who have signed up to rent strike or joined the chat have already cancelled their Direct Debits. We have, however, been getting reassuring numbers from Instagram polls asking who has already done it.

Can you tell me a bit more about the various issues you have encountered?

University of Manchester rent strike corona virus halls of accomodation prison protest
This black mould was present upon students arrival at their accommodation.

Multiple people have had their flats broken into. This has been through both through people trying to wedge their hands into the kitchen windows whilst they were open and inhabitants were present, and through several broken windows. Basic facilities such as cooking hobs and fridge-freezers have been inoperative, with maintenance not fixing these for weeks on end. Many of us have also gone without hot water and/or heating for much longer than is acceptable. We are also aware of numerous cases of obvious poor hygiene, such as silverfish in toilets, and infestations of black mould.

 

University of Manchester rent strike corona virus halls of accomodation prison protest
Bins were left overflowing leading to a build up of waste.

There have been various instances of flooding and leaks, during which students had to sleep in the library as their property was not fit for inhabitation. Upon arrival, they found that many of their possessions had been damaged as a result of these leaks, yet they received no reduction in their rent, despite breaking a clear clause in the rent contract. Outdoor bins have been left full the brim for days on end, with no collection. Besides being an obvious health hazard, this has caused horrific odours and attracted vermin. Many students have seen such vermin inside the accommodation also.

Furthermore, it’s clear the the university has no regard for their cleaning stuff. Members of the strike have mentioned how domestic staff were sent, without PPE, into their flat which was isolating, without being warned of such risk of infection.

Has Manchester University made any response?

In the first week after we emailed them, they replied saying they would look at our email but nothing more. The deadline we gave them for a response then passed and we called the rent strike. Yesterday they emailed us saying they are “committed to blended learning”, which ignores the reality of the situation. It made no apology for deceiving students about how teaching would be delivered to get us to move on campus.

In response to our complaints about unacceptable delays (e.g. getting fridges fixed), they did not acknowledge there was any fault with staff. They responded to repeated burglaries by advising us to follow guidance to keep our windows closed and doors locked. Windows have been broken in these burglaries, therefore placing blame on the victims is absurd. They defended their choice to give students the option of on-and-off campus learning in the first semester, because a survey of students showed that more than 75% wanted to move on campus. This doesn’t address the fact that living conditions have been unsafe and the university has prioritised profit over our wellbeing.

Have you been threatened with any disciplinary action by the University? If so, what is your response to that?

University of Manchester rent strike corona virus halls of accomodation prison protest
This misleading email was sent to strikers.

The university sent us misleading emails which addressed what would happen if tuition fees aren’t paid, which some people confused with rent. They are not allowed to give us any academic penalty for rent striking. They extended the time we will not have a late payment fine until Tuesday. We will keep striking beyond that date because we feel together there are enough of us to have demands met. The university cannot risk so much bad press.

How can people support your campaign?

Visibility is definitely our biggest challenge right now. As students whose teaching is all online, we are only able to interact with our flats. This makes it really difficult to get the word out. Social media is great but we need as much conversation about the rent strike drummed up as possible. Endorsements from organisations and high profile individuals have also been really helpful.

Do you have a closing statement that you’d like the University/public to hear?

In closing, we have been brought to university with the promise of in-person teaching because the university wanted to profit off our rent. While we’ve been here, there have been countless examples of maintenance taking weeks to fix basic facilities or completely ignoring reports of pest infestation. We were advised by email from the Uni to break the law by leaving our flats for food during isolation because they hadn’t set up an adequate support system. We feel this has shown up the priority of the university is profit, not student well-being.

The strikers are taking to Twitter this evening at 8pm to spread the word about the abhorrent conditions they are being subject to. Show your support for the cause by tweeting #UoMRentStrike at this time.

 

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