The following text was first published by Leeds Solfed. It describes the experiences of one of their members in the Bristol University Rent Strike campaign, and the importance of direct action in the fight against the capitalist systems of education and rent extraction.
The Bristol University rent strike has been ongoing now for just over 4 months, and I’ve been helping as one of the organisers for about the same amount of time. The strike has been an amazing success in some ways, from getting over 1000 sign ups before the first payment was due, to the extensive rent rebates we’ve won for students, some of whom will have saved over 25% of the rent for the year, and we aim to win back more. However, the strike has been unable to secure its most radical demand for a 30% rent reduction for all students in university owned accommodation, and I think there are lessons to be learnt for others wanting to organise an action such as this in the future.
First I want to give some background as to why the strike began in the first place, and how it was initially conceived and organised.
Students like myself came to university in September with knowledge that our academic and social lives were going to be disrupted somewhat, but the expectation given to us by the University that our courses would be world class, ‘blended’ learning experiences, was a lie. Staff had not been given the time and resources to properly prepare for the new term, as they were having to almost double their work through preparing in person and online content, rather than the University simply giving them more time and more staff to support them, as well as just committing to being online only. This would’ve given students a much better and safer experience. But when universities are run like private businesses, these are not their concerns. Universities get significant amounts of revenue from rent payments, and some accommodations will still need payments to be made on them by the University, so there was no way that they would risk students choosing to stay at home to study until the situation was safer, and as a result, we all flocked to our halls.
Student accomodations quickly became Covid hotspots, which was inevitable even if students strictly kept to their new social bubbles (an incredibly unrealistic expectation). Bristol skyrocketed in cases when it had been relatively untouched by Covid compared to some parts of the country. This isn’t the fault of students breaking the rules and being a nuisance in local communities, it’s the fault of the government and universities being driven by the need to get students in accommodation and paying rent.
The strike formed organically from people who could see just how much of a disaster the start of term had been. We knew why the University wanted us there, and we knew that we could organise it with relative ease whilst hitting them where it hurts. The parasitic nature of landlordism means that once you withhold your rent en masse, they’re suddenly struggling to survive, so it gives you significant leverage over them. This is the power of a rent strike.
We first met to discuss the strike only 10 days before the first rent payment was due, and only about 7-8 days before people had to cancel any payments that had been prepared, and so there was little time to establish any formal structure to the organisation of the strike. Everything had to be done quickly and by whoever could do it. This had its initial benefits, including allowing us to be flexible in those 10 days, as well as the fact that there for no power relations created through any formal structures; however, this quickly developed into a situation where a small selection of people did lots of work and knew what was going on with the strike, whilst the vast majority of people involved or signed up slowly drifted away from any organisational roles. This, coupled with lockdowns and small rent rebates has meant that the initial enthusiasm and momentum of the rent strike has faded significantly. This draws me to my first takeaway from helping to organise this strike; it is vital that members feel like they’re part of a whole, and that they’re engaged in the struggle, otherwise it becomes all to easy for people to drop off because they feel like they can’t, or don’t want to, contribute. It’s hard to know a good solution to this issue, especially when the powers you’re up against will throw everything they can at strikes to break up any sense of collective solidarity. Bristol University has done this through threatening emails, and worst of all, through attempting to create a divide between students by threatening to take students’ bursaries away if they were on strike.
To do this is no easy task, and so I won’t attempt to provide a comprehensive solution, but having organisational structures, that are designed to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, can benefit significantly, as they ensure that there are clear ways to get involved, and through democratic processes, they encourage people to understand their role as part of a collective struggle.
These rent strikes can’t win on the backs of students alone however. It is vital that students reach out to university staff of all kinds and vice versa. Workers in academia, and those that support students and universities (admin staff, wellbeing/academic support, cleaners/maintenance staff, etc.), are all in incredibly precarious positions, thanks to the funding model of our universities, and due to the nature of markets in general; yet there is a perception amongst students that staff are all in privileged positions and that their struggles are separate to those of students. This was exemplified greatly by the animosity towards the UCU strikes in 2019/20 from students, many of which felt that the strikes meant they weren’t getting their money’s worth from their degree, rather than realising that if university staff are getting paid more and have less of a workload, they’ll have a better uni experience, and by thinking of higher education in terms of getting their money’s worth, students are playing into the Tories’ hands on marketisation. The UCU strike and the rent strikes have both demonstrated the importance of solidarity between both students and staff, and they both demonstrate how uni managements will try to turn the groups against each other. In our meetings with management, they have implied that our victories will inevitably lead to harm to staff, which is not true when you consider the vast cash reserves the uni has accumulated over the years, but Bristol UCU for their part have been very helpful in showing their solidarity with the rent strike in meetings with us. Both of these struggles show the need in education for an organisation where all staff groups, and students, are joined together so they can fight together against the forces of marketisation in education.
It’ll take more than rent strikes to bring down marketised education in the UK, but they’re a good start along with UCU strikes and other forms of organising and direct action. The only way we could really take on the state in this respect, is if we can ignite a sense of solidarity between staff and students in the same vein as the 2010 tuition fee protests, although even these mass protests failed to prevent the rise of tuition fees. To fight against the forces of the market, you must refuse to participate, through actions such as rent strikes and industrial action, and so to create a coordinated general strike in education could really make a difference.
I, and other strike organisers in Bristol, have been thinking how we can turn the rent strike from an action that only has limited effects for this cohort for students, into a more long term transformational movement. We’ve begun to establish a permanent student tenants union in Bristol that can work alongside organisations like ACORN Bristol to help protect student tenants, and I’ve also been considering getting some political education sessions going for people that are interested. Students who’ve been participating in these rent strikes across the country should also look to join radical grassroots organisations and unions such as Solidarity Federation as those in Westminster continue to fail young people. Only direct action can save us now.
For now however, the rent strike continues, and we have some big things planned to get the focus back on our original demands rather than getting lost in negotiating meetings with management. If you’re a student reading this, join your local rent strike for your final rent payment!
Follow Leeds Solfed on Twitter here.
Image: Rent Strike in Harlem, New York, 1919, Public Domain.