(Featured image: cover of Rent Strike's COVID-19 handbook, available here.)

Lancaster University has confirmed to Spineless that it will be offering ‘some rent reductions’ to students' summer term rent. There have been increasing calls in recent weeks for the University to waive rent in its campus accommodation and Chancellor’s Wharf following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn.

The University left it until the rent payment due date to make a decision and won’t communicate the details to affected students until Monday 20th April. Details will then be put on the University’s COVID-19 internet portal.

The decision taken by University Council, the institution's highest decision-making body, will be met with some scrutiny, and questions will be asked about the decision-making process. As Lancaster University is a charity, University Council effectively acts as the Trustee Board. Its membership is in theory voluntary, but several members hold other roles in the University. The external voluntary members are known as ‘lay members’. There are two student representatives: George Nuttall, who sits ex officio in his capacity as LUSU President, and Bee Morgan, who acts as the student representative, a post that was previously directly-elected from the student body but is now appointed from within the sabbatical officer team.

Mr Nuttall and Ms Morgan had both publicly-supported ACORN Lancaster and Morecambe’s campaign to waive rents in University-owned accommodation (with the threat of a rent strike if the demand was not met). The sabbatical officers had also previously written to vice-chancellor, Steve Bradley, calling for the cancellation of third-term rent. They called the prospect of being charged for third-term rent ‘unjust, dangerous, and disrespectful.’

However, the other members of University Council may have looked less favourably on the idea. They include Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones and Lord Price, both former Tory ministers, Lord Liddle, a former Blairite spad, Philip Sycamore, a senior judge, and Simon Reynolds, a property consultant. Sir Ian Diamond, another member of Council whose antics Spineless has previously reported, is the former Principal of the University of Aberdeen. He was criticised in 2011 for living rent-free in a University-owned house, and was served a fake eviction notice by students, but in 2017 refused to budge after the Students’ Association ran a campaign to reduce soaring rents. With hypocrisy like that on University Council, how can student tenants expect their interests to be prioritised?

Sir Ian Diamond, Lancaster University Council member and former Principal of Aberdeen University.

The decision not to offer a blanket rent waiver runs counter to the decisions of many other institutions in the British higher education sector. Universities who have waived all their students’ rent or just the rent for those who have vacated their accommodation include UCLAN, Liverpool, Edge Hill, York, Manchester Met, UCL, KCL, Oxford, and many others. Having learned from the PR errors of first term, private provider Aparto, who operate Caton Court in Lancaster, have waived rent for anyone who has vacated their accommodation and reduced it by 30% for those who remain and intend to return next year. At present they are the only major private provider in Lancaster to do this.

Currently, the student portal for COVID-19 claims that as the University was involved in a ‘dynamic and fast-developing situation’ they were unable to even consider waiving rent until the day it was due to be paid. Most universities made decisions on rent weeks ago. The University’s advice is that if anyone is suffering financial difficulty, they should contact The Base and request financial support. Many would describe this advice as a little callous and inconsiderate of people who don’t rely on maintenance loans to pay their rent or whose maintenance loans do not typically stretch to the rent costs and so they rely on part-time work which is no longer available.

Almost 600 students have pledged, through ACORN Lancaster and Morecambe, to withhold their rent until the University agrees to waive it. While some of these students probably will not follow through on the commitment, others who aren’t aware of ACORN’s campaign will see the situation as unjust and withhold it independently. The rent strike is unique and many participants will be people who have already vacated campus. The University’s only realistic tool to satisfy their demand for COVID rent will be the threat of internal discipline, although it is hard to see this being levied on hundreds of students. Spineless readers, including those who have pledged to rent strike, are encouraged to join ACORN, which is a national community and tenants' union, and remember, in the process, their spin on the classic rallying cry: ‘The tenants united will never be defeated!’

It is unclear why many universities are able to waive all rent owed for the final term, but Lancaster isn’t. Spineless can only imagine that the answer involves financial mismanagement or reckless spending. Lockdown is the perfect opportunity for students to hit the books and start to seriously scrutinise where their tuition fees go. Perhaps the 250% increase in the number of senior personnel paid over £100,000 in the last four years is part of the answer…