A demonstration in Manchester protesting University accommodation rent A demonstration in Manchester protesting University accommodation rent. UOM Rent Strike / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Lucy Nichols talked to Chris Nineham about why she and a group of other Manchester students are being threatened with expulsion for refusing to accept intolerable student accommodation

How did the protests start?

The rent strike started for real in January when hundreds of students first withheld their rent payments. It was a response to the horrific accommodation situation for students in Manchester. You are looking at a situation where you have 18-year-olds paying as much as £170  a week for halls accommodation that sometimes has black mould, rats or silverfish. Things break and they don’t get fixed. For example one person at least didn’t have hot water in his flat for weeks and weeks.

So it was partly about the extortionate rents but it was also about the abysmal quality of the housing being offered. The worst place is called Oak House. I don’t know exactly how much they are charging now but it’s probably about £130 or £140 for a tiny little room. Oak House is built by a prison architect and it feels like it.

What form did the campaign take?

Well the university authorities ignored the rent strike. We held a series of protests and they ignored them too, so we decided to occupy three buildings including the main admin building and the brand-new high-profile engineering building which costs millions of pounds.

We then moved on to another site which we occupied for a number of weeks. On week two or three, eleven of us got emails from management notifying us they were starting an investigation for serious misconduct, including claims that we disrupted teaching and learning, injured and intimidated staff. Our hearings are coming up from 8th June, literally the day after the exams end. We are facing the possibility of being expelled or of very heavy fines.

What are your demands?

There are three. The first is for a rent rebate to every student, the second is for a £1,500 cost of living support payment to every student, and the third is that management implement the demands of our lecturers who have been taking strike action.

How have people reacted to your campaign?

There is a very high level of support for the campaign. So far 650 first year students are on rent strike. Other students are also behind us. In April we did a referendum through the student union and 11,000 out of the total of 40,000 students in Manchester voted That is more students voting than voted for the student union officers. And 97% voted in favour of our demands.

The staff and the academics’ union UCU have been incredibly supportive, they actually moved one of their picket lines at one point to support us. Other unions and staff on the ground have also been brilliant, auxiliary staff, cleaners, porters and gardeners have been great. Even some of the security staff seem quietly supportive.

Beyond the university we have had widespread support. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and some of the other Socialist Campaign Group MPs signed our first open letter. Our local Labour councillors have been very good too. We are finding that expensive and poor accommodation is a common problem among students. Students at Warwick, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Lancaster universities have all shown massive support and there are also students at Kings College, Cambridge, on rent strike who have been in contact.

What are you asking people to do to back you?

This is a really serious attack on the right of students to protest against intolerable conditions. We are asking people to sign the statement of support that we issued a few days ago. So far 2,000 people have signed but we want to get it out much further than that. So please sign and share widely. Spread the word about what is going on.

And there is much more that can be done. We are asking union branches nationally and locally to pass resolutions backing us. Also there will be protests. When people sign the letter of support, we ask them to let us contact them so that we can tell them about upcoming campaigning actions and protests and they can get involved. We believe we can win but we need a really strong national campaign to make that happen.  

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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