(Featured image: Students occupying University House during the 1974-5 Lancaster University rent strike.)
The rent strike at Lancaster University has reached the seven day mark, and many students will be withholding their rent for a second week. However, support from Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) has begun to waver, with elected officials publicly expressing their reluctance to support striking students.
The third-term rent strike has been organised by ACORN Lancaster and Morecambe, a local community and tenants’ union with a significant student membership. Planning and preparation began weeks in advance, as the scale of the COVID-19 emergency became clear. It was argued that as the University’s services had closed, as many students had left their accommodation, and that those that remained only did so as they had no other choice, it was only right for the University to waive accommodation fees for the third-term, as many other UK universities have done.
Events came to a head on 17th April, the third-term rent payment due date but also the date of a meeting of University Council, the institution’s highest decision-making body. At the meeting, the management figures and grandees who make up the Council decided to offer some rent reductions, but no blanket waiver. Students remaining in Lancaster would have to pay full rent, a decision which ACORN claims unfairly burdens international students, and students with vulnerable family members, who have decided not to return home.
The University expects students who are not currently in their accommodation, and have not been able to move their possessions out, to pay 25% of their original rent rate. If they remove their possessions and return their keys by 4th May, their entire rent will be waived. ACORN has described this as ‘an incentive to break the lockdown’: if students were to travel back to Lancaster before the lockdown ended and remove their possessions, they would get a complete, rather than partial, rent waiver.
Since the Council meeting last week, students have withheld their rent, with over 650 having pledged to do so in the weeks preceding. Precise numbers of current rent strikers are difficult to determine due to the dispersed nature of the action, but ACORN has been contacting the hundreds of rent strikers in the days since the details of the University's decision were announced earlier this week. ACORN revealed to Spineless this morning that over 90% of the students they have spoken to have confirmed that they are still rent striking.
The student argument was apparently advanced in that University Council meeting by the LUSU representatives, George Nuttall (President) and Bee Morgan (VP Education). However, they have yet to tell their constituents what they argued, what others argued, and how they voted. The sabbatical officers had previously written to University management asking for a rent waiver only for students who had permanently left, but unlike ACORN, had made no public calls for rent reductions or waivers for students who have been unable to leave campus. The lack of transparency about what happened in the Council meeting is par for the course, but in a situation as serious as this, with financial implications for thousands of students, Mr Nuttall and Ms Morgan should be a bit more forthcoming with the details.
At a virtual LUSU Executive Committee meeting on 21st April, some explanation was offered as to the Students’ Union’s lacklustre public support. The chair, Fabiha Askari, asked Exec members whether they would sign an open letter to the interim vice-chancellor, Prof. Steve Bradley, expressing support for ACORN’s campaign and reiterating that the rent strike was still ongoing. Ms Morgan was unsettled; she said that the Exec needed to “pick our battles a bit.” Victoria Hatch, VP Activities, said the University’s decision was “very reasonable” and asked whether LUSU could support both the University’s decision and the rent strike. This idea was backed by Lewis Marriott, VP Campaigns and Communications. The Exec did not resolve to take any action to support the continuing rent strike.
It would appear that LUSU is now doing the bare minimum to support the rent strike, which it is only doing reluctantly due to a policy passed at the AGM in October 2019. Readers of Spineless will be well aware that LUSU is an organisation incapable of following its own rules, or implementing its democratically-decided policy, so will no doubt be unsurprised by their approach to the rent strike, which is similar to LUSU's non-committal support for the UCU strike earlier this year.