Students up and down the country are rightly furious about the chaotic living conditions that they have been subjected to upon arriving at university for the start of the new academic year.
Thousands have been trapped in accommodation halls, with minimal help or guidance from university administrators about what will happen next.
The Tories and university bosses, meanwhile, are continuing to blame young people and students for the rise in COVID cases – a rise that, in reality, is the product of their recklessness and profit-seeking.
Sold a lie
Students have been lulled to university campuses – by management and the government – under false pretenses. Why should we be paying £9,000 fees and extortionate rents for online teaching and cramped, poor-quality housing?
In fact, why should we be paying anything at all? The current crisis facing students and universities has only proved beyond doubt that education should be free.
Please don’t blame the #Students, they were actively encouraged to start #university this September. Actively encouraged to move into #halls & repeatedly told it would be safe. They have been completely screwed over & have a lifetime of debt for the privilege. #studentlockdown— Erin Shanagher (@ErinShanagher) September 26, 2020
For years now, universities have increasingly been run as businesses, focusing more on making money than on the standard of education or welfare provided to students (or ‘clients’ and ‘customers’, as we are often referred to as by university bosses).
Now we are seeing the consequence of this system. At this time of extreme crisis, students and staff are being attacked like never before.
As management and the Tories continue to shift the blame and avoid accountability for their reckless actions, we – as students – must be firm in our response. This means getting organised, fighting back through rent strikes, and linking up with university workers to defend education.
The NUS has already stated that it will support rent strikes where it can. In 2016, a successful rent strike at University College London (UCL) over five months saw 200 students in halls of residence withholding rents ranging from £156 to £276 a week. As a result, altogether, they received concessions from the university worth £1.5 million.
If we replicated this – on a nationwide scale – it would push university bosses and the Tories onto the backfoot, giving confidence to students and staff everywhere to fight for free education, alongside decent pay, pensions, and conditions for HE workers.
Unite and fight!
We have the power to do this. We must demand the compensation of all rent payments and tuition fees for all students, regardless of isolation status. Education should be free. And students should receive full maintenance grants – not be forced to pay eye-watering rents to university bosses and parasitic private landlords.
Moreover, we demand that universities work with students to institute an effective isolation and self-quarantine plan. This should include: free meal deliveries; free and comprehensive mental health services; and a comprehensive plan for academic and social support.
To place our demands on university administrators, and to implement proper safety measures, student unions and activists should establish democratic student committees in every accommodation block and hall of residence.
These should elect accountable and recallable representatives, and join together to form an organised network of students across the university. Where management refuses to offer rebates, then such networks should be used to coordinate rent strikes.
We therefore call on students to:
- Call mass democratic meetings, block-by-block; hall-by-hall.
- Create Whatsapp groups to organise, as was seen with community mutual aid networks set up at the start of the pandemic.
- Elect accountable representatives for each block and hall.
- Network these groups together to coordinate rent strikes and other actions.
- Organise teams to knock on every door in every hall, with leaflets providing agitation, analysis and advice.
Importantly, with this kind of organisation in place, students would also be in a strong position to unite with UCU members and other unionised workers to fight against the marketisation that has spread throughout higher education.
This would strengthen the position of both students and staff – in the joint struggle against fees, rents, cuts, and casualisation.
Covid crisis hits Northumbria University
By Muslim Taseer, Newcastle Marxists
The news of an outbreak of 770 COVID-19 cases at Northumbria University might come as a surprise to many. But it shouldn’t.
This is the natural consequence of university management recklessly encouraging students to return to campus. It was completely obvious that thousands of freshers and returning students living in tightly-packed student halls would lead to exactly this result. How could it not?
Those at the top should have considered this, and advised students to stay at home and take part in their courses remotely. Students could have been instructed to wait, and brought back to campus gradually.
This, however, would have meant university bosses and parasitic landlords missing out on rent money. And these days, the primary goal of universities is to generate profits. This was the overriding factor in their decision to lull students back under false pretences.
The problem is profit
Capitalism is a system that prioritises profit above all. Time after time, this profit-motive has ruined industries and services, through outsourcing, privatisation, and marketisation, shifting them from providing for people to providing for capital.
This has happened to public transport. It has happened to education. And, if the Tories have their way, it will happen to healthcare.
It was obvious that bringing students from all over the country and moving them into student halls would inevitably lead to the exponential spread of the virus. University administrators knew this – yet they still decided to lure students in, assuring them it was safe.
Now, at least 770 students have contracted the virus at just one university. Thousands more face the same chaotic conditions – and imprisonment – at other universities. This means having to spend weeks locked up in student halls, away from family and friends, confused and alone.
But this all could have been easily avoided, with teaching moved online, if higher education institutions hadn’t been turned into businesses, designed to produce a profit.
Take back control
The UCU had warned of this exact possibility, but they were not listened to. It was clear that a mass return to campus was dangerous and irresponsible, but it still went through.
The handling of the situation indicates gross incompetence, at best, and malicious greed, at worst. After all, the infection rate in the North East was already high, with extra restrictions in place.
The government has poured £12 billion into a test-and-trace system that has utterly failed. For example, it has recently been revealed that ‘technical difficulties’ experienced early on were caused by an error with the Excel spreadsheets used to record data on those with positive results. This meant that 16,000 cases went unreported.
Even worse, university management are now shamelessly denying that there is a problem. Despite over 860 confirmed cases, both Newcastle and Northumbria universities are going ahead with limited face-to-face teaching.
This is putting both lecturers and students in danger – all because the bosses cannot bear to refund students. They’ve got their £9,250 per student, and they are not willing to let go of it.
They know that students will rightfully demand to know where their money is going. They are therefore continuing with business as usual, rather than admit guilt and face a potential financial hit, regardless of who this hurts.
Lecturers at Northumbria are balloting for strike – and rightfully so. Students must provide solidarity to them in their fight. We need to organise and unite together to oust the Tories, take back control of higher education, and make sure another preventable crisis does not happen.