Rent relief is a good solution to a bad situation; but what needs to happen next?

modern block of flats with green roof and balconies

On the 25th of November, the University of Manchester offered students a 30% rent cut. This was after a long and sustained period of campaigning from students on campus.

It’s been a tough year

Students have been understandably frustrated after what has been a ridiculously tumultuous year in higher education. They have ultimately have had to deal with crisis after crisis and fiasco after fiasco. There was the difficulty around A-Levels and exam results in summer before the academic term began. There were ‘lock-ins’ and full blocks of flats closed across campuses when students returned in September. Then there was the face-to-face teaching that they had been promises taken away from them.

adult blur books close up

These are all just issues that have taken place in this academic semester. There was of course the issues of the ‘safety-net’ that took place last semester. With decision making ultimately so reactive in the weeks after the first national lockdown, it was then much harder to criticise universities for their response to something so unprecedented.

The thing which frustrates students and many others about the problems we have seen over the past few weeks and months, ultimately comes down to the fact universities have known the challenges they would face for a long time. Vice-Chancellors and Executive Boards have had the time to plan. They have the resources able to deal with many of the issues that have come up. Government support has evidently been lacking for universities, but there is no excuse to be had there, as government support has hardly even existed for students.

What does it mean for the sector?

The news from Manchester has brought some hope to students who needed it. The rest of the sector is still either working out what happens on their campuses or what will come next. Rent relief has now become one of the primary focuses of Students’ Unions across the country, and rightly so. If it can happen in Manchester, why can’t it happen elsewhere?

Of course with that, it does depend entirely on where ‘elsewhere is’. Universities financial pictures are complex. The ability to offer rent reduction can be entirely dependent on the context in which they operate.

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Universities with a healthy balance sheet can give the option of rent reduction. There are many of them too. But, as we have seen in Manchester, it has taken consistent and well-thought out campaigning from students. Some universities of course may just seek to proactively offer this money. This is because it’s only moral and just for students who won’t actually be living somewhere they are paying for.

We think that students deserve something. Those students living on campus could be helped greatly by their university. Those students living privately off-campus will of course be struggling too. It is important universities don’t lose sight of that too.

Students were told to return to campus for in-person teaching that no longer exists. They were then sent home early through advice from government and universities themselves. There will be social, financial and other consequences of this, so it is only right that universities remember these things and look to act.

Our Thoughts

So if we were to give campaigning advice to Students’ Unions, to student leaders or anyone looking to support students through this period – this is what we think is worth remembering:

  1. Not all universities can afford to give rent releases, but most can. In the instances of those that can’t, try to work proactively with the university to find sources for funding from elsewhere to support students.
  2. Those universities who are able to afford rent relief should be made aware of the positive impact that rent relief can have on students wellbeing and financial circumstances.
  3. Students living off campus will need support too. Talking to the university about COVID-support schemes or financial pots to help other students in need would be really useful and important too.
  4. Not all students are the same, and their circumstances are different. Rent relief of course would help everyone, but some students would benefit more from this than others. It’s worth considering this in your campaign work, and making this known to university leaders too.
  5. If your University isn’t listening, speak to other Students’ Unions or student leaders who are having success. Everyone is stronger together, and the higher education sector has provided many examples of this over the years. This will be no different if done well, and could change lives for hundreds of people.

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