Labour: Students paying rent for housing they cannot live in “clearly unjust”

Elliot Chappell
© UoM Rentstrike

The Labour Party believes it is “clearly unjust” that university students are being forced to pay for accommodation to which cannot currently return due to coronavirus restrictions, LabourList can reveal.

Amid rent strikes across the country following the introduction of a third lockdown in England, shadow further education and universities minister Emma Hardy called on the government to support students.

Asked about calls for Labour to urge the government to intervene directly and secure rent refunds for students, the opposition frontbencher commented this morning that “action is necessary to address this injustice”.

Hardy said: “The government’s failure to control the spread of the virus is denying students the university experience they deserve. It is clearly unjust that many students are paying for housing that the government is telling them not to return to.

“Action is necessary to address this injustice, and all housing providers should be engaging with students tenants and their representatives to find a fair solution.

“Young people have been abandoned by the Conservatives throughout this pandemic, with jobs and training opportunities lost, an exams fiasco and disruption to college and university studies.

“Their future opportunities must not be the price they pay for the government’s incompetent response to this pandemic. With young people set to foot the bill for this crisis for decades to come, ministers must ensure all young people receive the support they deserve.”

The fresh lockdown in England, announced last week to combat surging numbers of Covid cases, caused widespread confusion for those university students who had returned home for the Christmas break.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan had issued guidance on New Year’s Eve for students to stay away until January 25th, but Boris Johnson made no mention of students in his televised address announcing the new measures.

A number of further education institutions issued their own instructions to students. University College London, for example, told its students not to consider returning to campus until the end of February.

While the University of Warwick has announced that its students will receive a rent waiver for all paying for accommodation on campus but not currently living there, many institutions are continuing to charge their students.

The University of Manchester offered a 30% rent rebate on the first half of the academic year, worth around £1,000 to each student, following a rent strike when students returned to university only to be locked down in their accommodation.

University of Manchester Rent Strike activist Ben McGowan wrote for LabourList on the protests, which have been renewed this year to demand a full refund for rent due for the period in which students cannot access their flats.

Commenting on the situation that students have now found themselves in, McGowan told LabourList: “There’s no justification for students paying for accommodation that they can’t use and can’t get back into.”

Action is being taken across the country as an estimated 15,000 students are thought to have pledged to withhold their rent for accommodation they have been barred from entering across at least 45 institutions this term.

Challenged on the problem by a parent of two university students in a televised briefing last week, the Prime Minister said only that there are “issues to do with the cost of their accommodation that we will have to look at”.

McGowan told LabourList that the most concerning issue is the vast majority of those enrolled on courses who are renting privately from non-university providers. Universities provide housing for around 25% of students.

“They can’t go on rent strike,” he explained. “Because if you go on rent strike against a private landlord, there’s not much we can really do to protect you in that sense.” The students would risk legal action being taken against them.

“Government needs to intervene more. Universities can’t really do much about private landlords and that’s where the Labour Party, we think, should be pushing for policy change,” McGowan added.

“It’s probably quite likely that there might be some response from the government and I think it would look quite bad if the Tories beat Labour to the punch on something that’s really important to students.”

Hardy has welcomed moves by universities that have already offered rent refunds and said she hopes “all housing providers start engaging with student tenants and representatives to find a fair solution”.

The shadow education minister pledged to “continue to work” with the National Union of Students (NUS) to “discuss this and all the issues facing students and what long term support is needed”.

NUS president Larissa Kennedy said it was “unacceptable that students are being told to not live in housing they have paid for, on public health grounds, yet are receiving no government support”.

She told LabourList: “We are rightly seeing the largest mobilisation of student housing activists for decades. This movement will only continue to grow unless the government, universities and landlords act now.

“All student renters must now be offered rent refunds and the option of leaving their tenancy early, if universities and landlords need financial support to make this happen then government must step-in.”

Young Labour sent an open letter to the Labour leadership last week calling for “support to the wave of student rent strikes across the country in protest at extortionate rents and our treatment this year”. They called on Labour to:

    • “Give clear and vocal public support to the student rent strikes;
    • “Whip Labour MPs to support their local rent strikes;
    • “Meet with the Young Labour student reps and rent strikers to discuss the student covid-19 crisis;
    • “Support the position of UCU and oppose attempts to pit students and staff against each other; and
    • “Fight for a free and democratic education system – with public funding in place of fees, grants to cover living costs of working-class students, social student housing run to meet needs with rent cuts and controls, and the democratic control of universities by students & staff.”

Scottish Labour housing spokesperson Pauline McNeill has also backed the calls for a rent refund from private student accommodation providers, as well as universities, for the month of January.

In a letter to chief executives of Scotland’s primary providers of student housing, she said: “We simply cannot have students being hit in the pocket by rent for accommodation that they have not returned to or feel could imperil their health.”

The government is currently facing growing pressure to tighten current restrictions to suppress the spread of Covid. Matt Hancock told the public on Sunday that the NHS faces a “very, very serious situation”.

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