At an online rally this evening, Lancaster students firmly rejected an "insulting" offer from their vice-chancellor and vowed to continue the rent strike. Earlier today, Prof Andy Schofield offered a £400 rent reduction to students who have been unable to return to their University accommodation this term.
The offer was announced in an email circular to all residents in University accommodation. Schofield explained that as a result of the government's national lockdown, due to last until at least mid-February, "Lancaster University is offering a one-off £400 goodwill payment." It only applies to students who have not been able to return to their accommodation due to government travel restrictions, and only if it is applied for before 21st January.
The £400 concession is considerably less that what many other UK universities have offered their student tenants, and falls far short of the rent strike's demands of a full rent waiver for those unable to access their accommodation and a 50% rent cut for all other student renters. The vice-chancellor has thus far refused to negotiate with the rent strike organisers.
At this evening's rally, which was addressed by the NUS President, Larissa Kennedy, as well as LUSU and JCR representatives, it was revealed that the number of rent strikers had surpassed 1,300 students. It's clear that Schofield's offer will not succeed in breaking the strike, as University management succeeded in doing in April 2020 (but their strike-breaking offer then still amounted to a full waiver for some students).
In today's email, Schofield hailed the fact the University was "able to keep to our promise to offer blended provision with face-to-face and online teaching" through Michaelmas Term. This insistence on blended learning was maintained despite UCU opposition and significant numbers of COVID cases on campus in late October, at one point having the highest infection rate in the entire county.
Schofield explained that the University was not making a profit from the situation, as it did not profit from student accommodation, but in the next paragraph explained that student fees were actually going to line the pockets of executives at UPP, the University Partnerships Programme, a private company that runs over 4,300 rooms on the Bailrigg campus. One of the UPP executives that oversees their rooms at Lancaster is Mark Swindlehurst, now managing director of UPP's asset management company. Before securing his role with UPP, Swindlehurst was in senior management at Lancaster University from 2003 to 2018. That's all good, then.
Spineless believes that Schofield's "goodwill payment" is deeply flawed for several reasons:
1) The payment is only to those who haven't returned to University accommodation. Those who returned before the travel restrictions and now have to stay in place, deprived of services and of normal life, and cannot travel back home, will receive no money.
2) The sum is not representative of the amount of time people have spent away from their accommodation on the University and government's instructions. If one left in the 3rd-9th December period as the University asked, and did not return until mid-February at the earliest, they would have spent about 10 weeks away from their accommodation that they had paid for. This equates to 1/4 of the total period of residence for many of the contracts, and equals £941 lost for those in Basic Standard rooms, £1098 lost for those in Standard rooms, and £1301 lost for those in Ensuite rooms. As can be seen, a £400 rebate is not even half of the figure lost for the cheapest University accommodation.
3) As it is a flat rate, the "goodwill payment" is unfair and benefits some students more than others.
In his email, Schofield attempted to appeal to students' sense of community: "As a result of the pandemic we have had to take quite extreme actions to mitigate the loss of tens of millions of pounds of income." In May 2020, the University predicted a loss of £66 million. In December, it was announced that the University expected to break even. Is this the sign of a management who overreacted? Who salivated at the possibility of sacking more staff? Or inexperienced leadership, out of their depth despite their six figure salaries? As the University motto says, "Truth lies open to all."
Schofield praised the University's mental health services, ignoring the rent strike's demand for increased spending on student support. The vice-chancellor's words contrast starkly with the reality of an underfunded mental health service which puts students' lives at risk.
The Accommodation Terms and Conditions, which all residents in Lancaster University-owned accommodation agree to, grants students the "right to occupy the Accommodation for the Period of Residence." However, this right has been deprived from students by the government, as a result of necessary COVID restrictions, but the University is making few concessions to acknowledge this.
Unless management begin to show some empathy with the position of the rent strikers, they will continue to make enemies of the student population.
Featured image via Spineless photography department. Spotted in Alexandra Square on 2nd December 2020.