“We were sold a lie”: Meet the student rent strikers occupying Sheffield’s Arts Tower

Written by Michael Robinson

In the early hours of Friday morning, images and videos circulated online of students entering campus buildings with the intention of remaining there for an indeterminate amount of time.

Confrontations between building security and students and images of banners being unfurled and hung up within these structures flooded Twitter.

The #OCCUPYCAMPUS protests, held by student rent strikers across the country, have called on their respective universities and the government to take action on rent they have to pay when not all facilities are open or available.

Representatives from each university rent strike group have repeated the same demand, that the universities refund up to 30% of students’ rent, provide no penalty release clauses to all students and admit to failures in providing student support.

Students from the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Nottingham University and the University of Manchester all occupied buildings over the weekend.

The four UoS rent strikers, who have now been joined by two more, entered the Arts Tower on Bolsover Street early Friday morning, and refused to leave after being told to by security, claiming they weren’t doing anything disruptive.

(Credit: Joe W.)

The university has said that it supports students’ rights to protest peacefully, but doesn’t condone the occupation of a building which causes disruption to other students.

The protestors told the university they would end the occupation on Sunday if they were allowed to hang their banners, but this was rejected on the grounds of health and safety. The group have said they will not leave until they are legally removed.

Everyone involved with this strike has said they are able to pay rent, but refuse to do so in solidarity with those who will struggle, as well as those who have been forced to stay and pay due to their circumstances like med students and those from vulnerable homes.

Rent striker and first-year politics student Dan, from Hackney, explained the reasoning behind their actions.

Dan

“We were sold a lie. If you’re receiving a different product, you should pay a different price.”

“A rent rebate is the most direct way of putting money into the pockets of students, which has to be the focus.”

“We are university students and we have rights to be here.”

When talking about architecture students who have been unable to access the Arts Tower, the building which houses their department, Dan explains that they are not preventing students from entering, rather it is security, and insists they are tucked away, occupying the ground floor area near the lecture halls currently not in use due to pandemic restrictions.

When asked about their current situation, Dan said:

“They’ve turned off all heating in the building, it is quite cold. We do have sofas that we are sleeping on.”

When talking about the group’s access to meals, Dan noted that they have been denied appliances such as microwaves and kettles (for health and safety reasons), and have had to resort to junk food for meals.

“There are 15 bottles of coke on the table, so that gives you an idea of what our diet consists of.”

Dan says that security have locked the two fire doors closest to them, hindering any potential escape in the event of an emergency, as well as shutting off the heating in the building.

“They hadn’t informed us that they’d locked them. This is risking our lives, to be quite honest.”

A spokesman for the university said, “Four out of five doors are open – students have been made aware and fully briefed by security staff.”

Dan says that the security guard said that they would alert them in the event there was a fire.

Joe W., a third-year student from Liverpool who joined the protest on Sunday, recalled his reasons for joining and how he was able get in.

Joe

“I lost my job as a result of coronavirus. Money has definitely been tight for me. If I didn’t believe I was being treated unfairly and that we were all being treated unfairly, I would still find a way to pay that rent.”

“I have got the money in case I need to pay the rent.”

“I think the university should take a more compassionate approach rather than running as a business. At the end of the day, we’re already paying £9250 just to attend.”

Joe says that he responded to a call from Dan to join the occupation. He notes that he was anxious about the situation, spending the previous night worried about joining the movement over any potential academic or legal sanctions.

“I came to the conclusion that it was a risk I was willing to take.”

He entered via the front door after security had opened the entrance, and despite protestations from staff, was able to join those inside, calling it “the most stressful experience”.

Joe has called on the university, along with the others inside, to make concessions on rent and admit their fault in falsely advertising a university experience they likely knew was not possible due to the ongoing pandemic.

As a result of leaving university in December and returning in late-March, Charlie T., a first-year politics student from Leamington Spa, has been exempt from some rent fees, and has been afforded a rent rebate of a few extra weeks which has totalled to about 30% off his rent for the year. He says that while this is good for him, many others have still been subject to rent.

Charlie

“We want the rebates to be extended to all students,” he said.

“I’ve talked to people who have never been to their accommodation and who never intend to be. There just needs to be a release clause which means that they can get out of their contract and don’t have to pay a penny.”

All of the rent strikers expressed that the reason they escalated their action was a result of being ignored and not being taken seriously by the university.

They say, since occupying the space, they have been in contact with senior members of the university.

A spokesman for the University of Sheffield, said: “The University of Sheffield supports the ability of students to express their views peacefully within the law. However the University does not condone occupation of a building which causes disruption for other students and we would ask those in occupation to leave.

“We understand this has been an incredibly difficult year for students and throughout the pandemic we have been working hard to support them in the best possible way.

“While the University cannot control the decisions of private landlords, we are continuing to work closely with the Students’ Union to ensure we are providing students with the most effective and appropriate support.”

The UoS rent strikers have received support from the University and College Union (UCU), the Lecturers Union, NAU, the National Education Union, the Trades Council, with many present at their rally in Weston Park.

The rent strike was supported by a vote in the UoS Students’ Union which saw the motion voted 45-0, with the remaining members abstaining from the vote. UoS rent strikers have said they are disappointed by the lack of action or support given by the SU regarding their protest.

They have also received support from Labour councillors as well as Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake in the past, though she has yet to comment on the Arts Tower occupation.

Written by Michael Robinson

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