Hundreds of students in UK sign up to rent strike

Hundreds of university students have signed up to a rent strike in protest at having to pay thousands of pounds for accommodation where they have become trapped as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many have complained they are stuck on near-deserted campuses where facilities and services have closed. Others say they cannot afford to pay because they have lost jobs vital to fund their living costs during their studies.

Among those caught up in the lockdown are international students from countries across the globe, including China, Japan, Pakistan, India and the US, who are stranded thousands of miles away from their families.

“We are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Jamsheed Cooper, a 27-year-old masters student, who is stranded in his £650-a-month student accommodation on the Sussex University campus, unable to get home to Dubai. He is one of about 150 supporting the rent strike at Sussex.

“I’ve decided to withhold my rent. We can’t leave even if we wanted to. Almost all the campus services are absolutely closed. What are we paying for? The cleaners are not even coming. It’s a ghost town right now.”

Also stuck in the East Slope accommodation block at Sussex and withholding his rent is George Grammer-Taylor, 23, a first-year law undergraduate, who lost his job in a seafront bar and is now relying on savings to survive.

“I’m refusing to pay because it almost feels like forced imprisonment,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do. There’s just nothing on campus. It’s desolate. A lot of people are struggling. I just feel there’s no support for students when this should be the time when the university is supporting us the most. I’m very disappointed.”

A University of Sussex spokesperson said students were told in March that rental payments for the final term would not apply for those who were no longer living on campus, costing the institution more than than £5m in lost rent.

While many students were able to get out, others found themselves caught by the lockdown restrictions after the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote to them urging them to stay put and not attempt to travel.

While all teaching has moved online at Sussex, around a fifth of student residents have stayed on campus. “Providing these students with the many services required to enable them to live on campus and support their welfare at this very difficult time has, and will continue to be, our overwhelming priority,” the spokesperson said.

The university said reception and security services were available 24/7, as well as catering, a supermarket, wellbeing services and regular cleaning and maintenance: “We do appreciate this is an extremely unsettling time for our students on campus and we wish their time at Sussex could be different. We hope that our students know we will continue to do everything we can to respond to their needs.”

Elsewhere, students living in privately owned accommodation are finding themselves tied into tenancy agreements costing thousands of pounds, even though many have travelled home to be with their families during the Covid-19 crisis.

Students at the University of Warwick have also started a rent strike. While the university has waived rent and cancelled contracts for students renting on campus, many of those renting off-campus from private landlords are still obliged to pay, though many of the rentals will have been arranged via the university’s property management agency. A Facebook group in support of the strike has gathered more than 650 members.

Second-year management student Alfie Brepotra told the student newspaper, the Boar: “Student tenants are already in a precarious position where it is easy for landlords to manipulate us and this crisis only highlights that, especially for working-class students and those who rely on part-time work who are now temporarily unemployed.”

A Warwick University spokesperson responded: “Off-campus renting during the current situation continues to present complex challenges to everyone concerned.

“Our principal and immediate focus is on student hardship, ensuring that students with real financial support needs can access the support they need through the university’s students hardship scheme, rather than taking any other action that could lead them into potentially costly, and lengthy, legal disputes, particularly with private sector landlords.”

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