University students and staff strike against full tuition fees and lack of Covid-19 support

Hundreds of students and staff members are planning to strike in a bid to obtain better living conditions for those living in halls and a reduction in tuition fees.

Many first-year students in Bristol are protesting against paying full tuition fees despite most of their courses being taught online. They withheld their rent and demanded to be released from their housing contracts, to be fully refunded their deposits and awarded a 30% cut-back on rent for those choosing to continue living in halls.

After the A-level fiasco, students were looking forward to starting university. They were told by higher institutions that halls were safe to live in, that they’d receive lesson both face-to-face and online and that they would be given the adequate support.

However, accounts of university students are quite different from the picture that universities painted at the start of the academic year. Talking to The Guardian, students claimed that while the university was providing food parcels for those isolating, many of these weren’t tailored to those with dietary requirements and they lacked fresh fruit and vegetables.

When asked by The Gryphon for a comment regarding the rent strikes, Alice Clarke, a second year student from the University of Bristol, said “Universities obviously have had to make unprecedented decisions but they should reverse a lot of these and accept the demands of the strike. We were urged to come to university, that it was safe and out in person presence was needed. It is clear that Is no longer the case. The profit universities make on halls is vast and they have ensured they don’t lose a penny.”

Furthermore, she urged other students to consider if universities “are […] supporting them, offering free food boxes, mental health support, release from contracts or rent reductions. If not, students should be entitled to all these things.“

Moreover, mixed guidelines from the university made it even harder for students to understand how to behave on campus, as some were allowed to go outside while other were denied this. There are accounts of if there were security staff enforcing the rules to contain the virus, a lot of them had “no clear communication from the university about what their powers were.”

At time of writing, there are over 1,000 students and staff who tested positive for coronavirus and therefore many of them have had to self-isolate due to the recent spike in cases when students returned to unis to study. The Bristol Cut the Rent has gathered hundreds of signatures from students who are withholding over £1m of tuition fee payments.

In the email to the university, Rent Strike Bristol stated that they were writing to protest against the lack of support from universities regarding food supplies, excessive rent fees for mainly online teaching. Amongst their demands were outdoor time allowance, food parcels for all students (including those with dietary requirements), regular support from mental health experts and more information about the responsibilities of security staff responsible for safety at student halls.

The Rent Strike Bristol organisation states that “We are calling on everyone in halls, whether your halls are in lockdown yet or not, to join our strike which starts on 24th October. We all need to stand together and get the compensation and promises from the Uni which we deserve.”

In an address to the House, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson gave his statement about students going back to university campuses to start their new academic year. He states that the institutions will continue to provide blended learning where it’s necessary for specific courses to have hands-on experience and that the DHSC (Department for Health and Social Care) will provide more testing sites.

He stated that “we believe that universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks as they arise, and we have been working with the sector and Public Health England to make sure that they have every support and assistance they need should this happen.”

However, the Opposition party doesn’t see the response of universities to coronavirus as successful or even enough. When being interviewed on Politics Live, Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh compared students to “cash cows” as they had to pay for full tuition fees while receiving only online lessons.

Furthermore, a similar initiative has been taken by the National Union of Students (NUS) with their #StudentsDeserveBetter campaign where they accuse universities and the government have neglected students. They highlight the importance of pupils’ rights to leave student halls without any financial repercussions, “effective test and trace” and “food and welfare support”.

Main image credit: Bristol Post