The big news of the last few days has concerned the outbreaks of Covid-19 in student halls at Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. With an explosion of positive cases, especially at Glasgow University, hundreds of students in halls have been placed into quarantine, and every single student in Scotland has now been banned from going to pubs and cafés for the weekend beginning Friday 25 September. But beyond the predictable impulse to blame this all on wild student flat parties over Freshers’ Week, there are important questions that must be asked about the decision on the part of university managements across the country to open up halls again for the new academic year. How could it be a good idea, amid a pandemic, to encourage students to move into halls of residence, where multiple people share the same kitchen and bathroom spaces, when all courses are online? The result has been a public health disaster, and it has certainly contributed to the ongoing, country-wide collapse into a second lockdown. Furthermore, from the interviews with students being run by BBC News, it appears that students were often unaware that all of their classes would be online prior to moving in.
One article records the dissatisfaction felt by halls students on finding out that everything is online after they had already moved in and started paying rent. “We students are caught up in the fact that no one wants to take responsibility for what’s going on and we are the ones caught up in it and we don’t know if it’s worth the money we are paying,” said one student. The mother of another student spoke about how her daughter “found out that all classes will be online for the first semester” after moving in. She lamented the fact that her daughter “signed an agreement and paid a lot of money to stay there and what for? Now she is essentially imprisoned?” In another BBC News article, one first-year student in Glasgow’s Murano Street Halls questioned why “the university told them to move into the halls when they could have followed their online courses from home”. The feelings that permeate these interviews are feelings of betrayal and frustration, of having been ripped-off. How could it be otherwise, when students in halls have been sold an unsafe living experience, one which they are now trapped in, all so the universities can collect their rent? With the university experience being entirely online, there was no reason for the halls to be opened back up, other than rent money.
Thankfully, the anger of the students appears to be swiftly bearing fruit. Already on the night of Thursday 24 September, a Twitter account for a group called “Glasgow Uni Rent Strike” had been set up, calling, as the name suggests, for students in halls to withhold rent payments “until the University work out a method to reimburse us for any negligence”. There is also motion at Aberdeen, where the Student Tenants Union has announced that it will be forming a committee on Monday 28 September. It is clear that the student tenants’ organisation, pioneered in the last year by the Stirling Students Tenants Union, is an idea whose time has come. We are very excited to see tenants’ unions emerging at universities all over Scotland, and we hope to see plenty of co-ordination and co-operation between them in the days and weeks to come. We want to make clear our complete support for any and all rent strikes called by students – the quick, sneaky greed of university landlordism has potentially landed us with hundreds of new Covid-19 cases, and, if uni managements get away with lumping all the blame on students, their negligence will go unacknowledged and unaccounted for. The stakes are high and the need is urgent – the rent strike is the way forward.
There is, after all, only one way to make a landlord cave: hit ‘em in the wallet!