(Featured image: Bowland Tower under construction in the 1960s.)
Andy Schofield's now-infamous "goodwill offer" of a £400 rent cut for some students will be intimately familiar to most rent strikers, who have had it arrive in their inboxes several times in the last month. But despite management's persistent emails, uptake, it appears, has been low.
After the rent strike organisers urged students to reject the £400 offer, the initial deadline of 20th January was extended twice: first to the 25th January and again to the 31st. An online poll conducted by The Tab Lancaster found that 71% of students have rejected the goodwill offer.
University management's attempt to split the strike has clearly failed, something they conceded by meeting with rent strikers and LUSU reps last week, opening negotiations and the path to further concessions. The Deputy VC committed to a second round of negotiations in the coming week, where rent strikers are hopeful that something more than the "insulting" £400 will be on offer.
In our initial coverage, we offered some of the more obvious logical problems with the VC's £400 offer. Fortunately, a Spineless muckraker - Joe Rees - has taken the time to look at the offer email in greater depth, and provide a full dismantling of the VC's argument. The VC's original email can be found here.
The first paragraph of the email is only two sentences long, but, in explaining why teaching is predominantly online, mentions the government three times. Though subtle, it sets the tone for the rest of an email that fails to take sufficient responsibility for University management's own actions and decisions.
Only students currently living at home are eligible for the £400. Students still on campus (disproportionately international students who have been unable to travel home) will get nothing. For some students who have been unable to spend a single night in their accommodation this academic year due to travel restrictions, or because they're medically shielding (therefore disproportionately international or disabled students), the University is currently offering them nothing beyond the £400, despite them having paid many thousands for a room they haven't once used.
The VC's email linked to an online form through which students who believe they are eligible could register for the £400 rent cut. Students must declare that they have:
... not been living in Lancaster University accommodation since the 4th January 2021 and have not been able to return to my on University accommodation in the Lent Term because of Government COVID travel restrictions.
If the restrictions change before the end of the term, permitting many students to return to their accommodation, will they therefore become ineligible for the £400? The wording of the form seems intentionally vague in this regard.
The £400 rent deduction will be applied to students' Summer Term rental invoice, but only after they have paid Lent Term's rent in full, meaning that the University has until the Summer Term payment date in April to determine students' eligibility. There's therefore lots of wiggle room for management to minimise what they pay out to students.
Summer term 2019/20 repayment
The £400 goodwill payment comes on top of the rent repayment we provided to students in the summer term.
What about first-year students who were not at the university in the summer term? These are the ones most affected by the restrictions and closure of facilities on campus, and the ones most vulnerable to difficulties faced as a result of it being, for many, their first taste of independence. They did not benefit from this rent repayment yet are bearing the brunt of the loss of the benefits from the 'university experience'. These were benefits they thought they were signing up to when they accepted their place. These were students who had already missed several rights of passage in their transition to adulthood due to COVID. A university should have a duty of care that extends beyond online or “blended” tuition and a nod to mental wellbeing. A clear precedent has been made for refunds and the current offer pales in terms of the magnitude of the current situation of first-years.
In addition, we have allocated extra funds for the student hardship fund and we encourage any student suffering hardship as a result of the pandemic or otherwise to access this fund.
Students experiencing hardship present a serious issue for the university, as they always do, but this should be treated separately, and cases will differ between individuals. To conflate this with students’ request for reimbursement on account of the scant benefits they have received from life on campus, in-person tuition and face-to-face interaction with other students in small groups, which we must be clear, is what distinguishes university education from other forms of learning, is crass and disingenuous to say the least and points to a real lack of empathy and genuine understanding of the day to day problems that students actually face.
So far we have been able to keep to our promise to offer blended provision with face-to-face and online teaching. This contrasts with a number of other major universities who moved online only for much of last term. We have kept the campus open and accommodation still remains available for students who need it.
Blended provision means a combination of high quality personal interaction with tutors and lecturers and other forms of learning such as online seminars and collaborative work with other students. Yet there are a significant number of students who have received very little if any physical experience of the traditional type of learning that we all know is irreplaceable by its remote counterpart. Many students have not yet set foot in their departments, such as the Management School. The campus is not open. The sports centre is shut. Communal areas are closed. Bars are closed, as are eating places where students can meet and enjoy essential social interactions. Students cannot mix between halls, nor even different floors with halls. This is not an open campus in the way anyone would reasonably imagine, nor is it the scene that invited in prospective students, e.g. at open days in February 2020. It is not an attractive place to live - and pay rent for the privilege. Many will choose to work from home, where at least they have regular and meaningful contact with family and perhaps even friends in their immediate support bubble. Students living on campus have access to their room, the communal kitchen, the library, takeout facilities and essential services. This makes the statement "We have kept the campus open," technically true, but practically false. Many students depend on an income from bar work and working in other facilities on campus such as swim teaching and lifeguarding at the pool, etc. These students have no replacement for this lost income. £400 doesn’t scratch the surface of this lost income and forces many to rely on borrowing to survive. £400 will be dwarfed by interest payments on this personal debt for years, even decades to come.
It may also be helpful to explain that the majority of Lancaster's accommodation is operated by a national company called UPP. The University is contractually obliged to transfer the full rent from accommodation whether students are able to be in residence or not and thus the full impact of the goodwill payment is being borne by the University.
How the university chooses to manage its own property and the decision to outsource its management to a third party is a purely commercial decision the university has taken with its eyes open, fully aware of the attendant consequences for both costs and revenues. We are not making a distinction in terms of who should take financial responsibility for the loss of income, but most reasonable outsiders and those with even the briefest experience of these types of arrangements would suggest that it would usually be a combination of both the provider of the accommodation contract and the client. To propose the argument that the university is now simply a hostage to fortune, having signed such a one-sided contract (benefitting the contractor rather than the client), meaning the university now has little option but to place the burden of cost on the end consumer, is risible. If all the cost of this is being borne by the university rather than being apportioned between both parties then this indicates a commercial naivety on the part of the university and is no concern of the student body, other than to the extent its high-paid managers are actually incompetent. To suggest that it should be is quite unacceptable and is really of no concern of the tenants.
University cost savings
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. Whilst it is true that we have been able to make some savings on things like staff international travel, the vast majority of the costs of running the University remain the same. During the autumn a large number of staff voluntarily gave up some of their salary to help the University avoid a financial crisis. We have also been running a voluntary severance scheme to try and reduce staffing costs. We had reached a position where it looked like we could just about break even at the end of this financial year, but the finances remain precarious. The reality is that any extra costs push us into the red and the need to make further cutbacks: this would mean students returning to a diminished university when the pandemic is under control again. I am trying to balance that reality whilst giving students something back in recognition that you also face difficulties.
The argument that the University is in dire financial straits does not hold up. Net cash flow of the university rose from £26.8m in 2018/19 to £35.5m in 2019/20. Income for the university rose by £14.6m in 2019/20 compared with the previous year. Tuition fee income rose by £21m. Staffing costs fell by £71.7m and general expenditure by £76.5m. These are strong finances, which in operational terms point to a surplus.
If a slightly tougher climate over the last few months has plunged the university into a position of having to “avoid a financial crisis” where “finances remain precarious” then this indicates historic financial mismanagement rather than simply being a hostage to fortune. Especially coming so soon from such a strong operating position. A great many businesses in a less secure position in the economy at present are still paying their employees full wages. They would be grateful for the opportunity to break even.
In the period outlined above, net debt rose by £1.2m, or 3%, due to capital project commitments. The current asset ratio, measuring the university’s ability to meet its immediate financial commitments, stood at 1.4 on the last count, unchanged on the year, and well within a sustainable liquidity range. In 2013/14, the current ratio was 1.26, significantly lower than at present. In fact, a higher current ratio would beg the question of why the university was not putting more onus on creditors to take a share of the burden of helping to manage the organisation’s short term financial commitments. The long term capital investment commitments of the university, which are unavoidably contributing to the overall debt position, are of course instrumental to the development of the university and the quality of experience of future generations of students, but quite peripheral to this particular and distinctly current issue of rent rebate and refund for present students. It should not be included as a factor germane to this case. Indeed, it is quite disappointing to see this being introduced as an influence on the university’s offer to current students.
The response of the university to an eminently reasonable request for a rent rebate/reduction is patchy at best and disingenuous and blunt at worst, although the initial offer indicates the University might make future concessions. It is, unfortunately, wholly inadequate and, many feel, insulting. There must be a sea-change in the university’s recognition of the severely compromised and frankly grievous situation that most students face in their university life, education, future prospects on account of this, mental health and value for money. Students wait with bated breath for the vice-chancellor to see right from wrong and produce a revised offer.