Rallies and rent strikes: how students and staff are uniting against Covid chaos

Rachel Hall
·5-min read

In August, A-level students joined forces to voice their anger on social media at the algorithm that failed to give them fair grades, helping force a government U-turn in favour of teacher-estimated results. Now, some of those same students are stuck in lockdowns at halls of residences at universities across the country, studying online and restricted to socialising with their households – and they’re angry again.

“Students were mobilised by the A-level U-turn. Now they’ve come on to campus, they’re thinking: ‘I’m sitting in my room watching a screen, which I could have done at home, why am I paying this money?’. There’s growing political awareness that enough is enough,” says Sabrina Shah, co-president of the School of Oriental and African Studies students’ union.

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Shah says the students she speaks to are angry about the way some campus lockdowns are being policed by private security, the paltry food parcels they’ve been receiving from ill-prepared institutions, and a widespread feeling that they were enticed on to campus to shore up university finances despite the risks posed to their physical and mental health. There’s also a growing suspicion among students that they’re being kept in halls to discourage them from dropping out before December, when universities secure their tuition fee payments from the government, she says.

As a result, grassroots activist groups are springing up online at campuses across the UK to coordinate actions. Students at several universities, including Warwick, Bristol and Glasgow, are running rent strikes involving hundreds of students. Others at universities including Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool have organised groups under the name Students Before Profit to campaign for better conditions for students locked down in halls.

“People think the university’s abandoned them,” says Laura Verdasco, a third-year psychology and neuroscience student at the University of Glasgow who’s been speaking to students to inform Students Before Profit’s work. “It’s their first year and the situation doesn’t seem to be getting much better, and it’s proven hard to talk to the university.”

This grassroots activism complements a nationwide campaign launched by the National Union of Students (NUS) last month, called Students Deserve Better. The campaign aims to uphold students’ legal rights, including challenging rules that treat them differently to the wider population, safeguarding their finances and ensuring universities prioritise their safety. The NUS is also partnering with rent strike groups to provide activism training.

“The only exciting thing about this moment that otherwise feels really bleak is that we’ve seen an upsurge in the number of localised, grassroots student movements,” says NUS president Larissa Kennedy. “We’re finding ways to support that work.”

Despite some students and staff testifying to tension on campuses, they are increasingly joining forces to share their worries about the health risks of face to face teaching and to hold university leaders and the government to account. Shah has been speaking alongside staff members in rallies run by trade unions and grassroots activist networks. “Academics are on the side of the students,” she says. “I think the cross-union work is scaring the government and institutions. It means we’re more powerful.”

Demands from the groups vary, but typically they ask for more testing; for all teaching be moved online until it is safe to meet face to face; for proper investment in quality remote teaching, including pausing redundancy plans and supplying disadvantaged students with equipment; for students to be released from their accommodation contracts, so they can go home; and – crucially – for the government to bail out any universities which struggle financially as a result.

There is tension in the movement over whether students should receive refunds: while various petitions and student groups such as Refund Us Now are asking for discounts on their education, some believe that this consumer behaviour plays into the marketised higher education system, and see it as a distraction from the broader call to abolish tuition fees.

The challenge staff and students are facing is how to make their voices heard when they can’t meet in person or organise protests. Instead, they’re turning to online networks to galvanise their movement. One staff-led group, UCU Solidarity, sprang up in response to the wave of redundancy announcements at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to support official action by the University and College Union (UCU).

“When we’re working from home we’re atomised from our usual communities, so you have to build solidarity and organise and be seen and heard,” says Bee Hughes, one of UCU Solidarity’s informal organisers and a lecturer and UCU branch officer. “We’re trying to raise awareness, create community and form a grassroots movement.”

Related: 'People thought I was too young to protest': the rise of student activism

UCU Solidarity recently organised a day of action in which staff and students came together to express their concerns. Events included socially distanced protests from students in Manchester, Glasgow, Soas and Brighton; online rallies; talks from MPs including Liverpool Riverside’s Kim Johnson; Twitter storms voicing complaints from angry staff and students at Ulster; and workshops on issues such as intellectual property for online learning. This activism has dovetailed with union branches across the country confronting their leaders after learning that the government’s scientific advisers had called for teaching to move online at the start of the academic year.

“It’s quite a drop in the stomach feeling how bad things actually are,” says Vicky Blake, UCU president. “It’s a real moment of reckoning across the sector. There needs to be some leadership that goes beyond offering a few Pot Noodles to some students to make things better.”

Blake thinks the union’s work has been given added power by staff and students’ grassroots activism and the networks they’ve developed to share experiences and offer support. She sees this as a distinctive feature of social organising online.

“We’re learning from each other, across trade union and activist movements, how to do something positive that helps bring people together,” she says. “It’s quite an organic thing, and I think it shows how bad the situation is that people have been moved to organise in this way. But it also shows that there’s some hope.”