University rent strike protesters may be forced to abandon Arts Tower occupation

Written by Sophie Henderson

University of Sheffield students who have been occupying the Arts Tower as part of the rent strike may be forced to leave after an Interim Possession Order (IPO) hearing this Friday.

The occupiers have remained inside the building since 23 April and said they received notice of the order made by the University, which can be made against trespassers, on 30 April.

It would be a criminal offence if the students failed to leave the Arts Tower within 24 hours of the IPO being served, for which they could be arrested and charged by police.

In a statement published on Twitter, the group said: “This heavy handed legal attempt by a University to evict their own students from their own University building is unprecedented amongst the wave of Rent Strike occupations of 2020/21.

“This represents an institutional stifling of freedom of speech on behalf of the University, emblematic of wider restrictions on the rights to protest.”

They also said that Students’ Union (SU) Officers had privately indicated their support for the occupation, despite SU President Beth Eyre releasing a statement on 23 April which condemned it.

“They [SU Officers] have been intimidated into silence by the Vice-Chancellor, who has previously refused to engage with Officers if they act against his wishes,” the group said.

In the statement, the students said they were disappointed at Eyre’s response, calling her statement “unwittingly incendiary.”

Of the occupation, Eyre said in the statement that it is unnecessary to detriment the studies of their fellow students and that she is in discussion with the rent strike and the University about how to bring the occupation to an end.

Ms Eyre told Sheffield Wire: “I represent almost 30,000 students and have to balance the needs and interests of them all – that includes recognising the right to peacefully protest for grassroots student organisations, as well as the students who will have experienced disruption as a result of their occupation. As well, I completely understand the frustrations of students at the situation they’re facing, having been a student during the pandemic myself.

“As a result, in my role this year I’ve already secured about £4million in rent for students in halls, release contracts for those who do not want to return to halls in May and an extra £3million in a Covid support fund for all students to apply for from the university. I have been helpful and cooperative with the rent strikers since we met last year and have facilitated discussions at all opportunities.

She added: “I want to reiterate my support for students’ right to peaceful protest. At this point in time, I strongly believe that all of the higher education sector should be uniting in the fight against the government, who have disgracefully forgotten students at every turn during the pandemic.”

The rent strikers said they will continue to commit to the rent strike and their demands which are securing a 30% rent rebate and no-penalty release clauses for all students in University-owned accommodation, as well as adequate support for students who are self-isolating.

The University of Sheffield students coordinated their occupation with Sheffield Hallam rent strikers, who are occupying the Cantor building on Arundel Street. Students at the Universities of Manchester and Nottingham are also occupying campus buildings.

Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “We extend full solidarity to all students who are facing extreme challenges after being forced to occupy campus buildings, and having been exploited for fees and rent throughout this pandemic. Students deserve better than such hostility from their own institutions and threats of academic sanctions for simply taking action to counter the government’s abysmal treatment of students over the past year.

“Whilst we wholeheartedly support their resistance, students shouldn’t need to fight to be able to afford to be in education on a campus by campus basis. We need the Government to step up and provide a financial support package that includes direct payments to students, a reinstatement of maintenance grants, action on student housing and movement towards fully-funded education.”

Students have been occupying the Arts Tower since 23 April

A spokesperson 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.

“As part of this continued support, the University has not charged rent to students who are unable to make use of their University owned or managed accommodation due to the government’s restrictions and has established a £3 million COVID Support Fund for those facing financial difficulties.

“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.”

Written by Sophie Henderson

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