Hundreds of mainly first-year students in Bristol are poised to stage a rent strike in protest at the university’s treatment of people forced to self-isolate in halls and degree courses taught almost entirely online.
According to organisers, more than 800 students have so far signed a pledge to withhold their rent to the university when it is due on Friday. They are calling for Bristol to release students who want to go home from their rental contracts, refund 100% of deposits, and offer a 30% reduction in rent for the rest of the year for those who choose to stay.
They are the latest group to threaten to withhold payment for accommodation, after students studying at universities including Glasgow and Cambridge did the same.
More than 900 students and staff at Bristol have so far tested positive for coronavirus, with many more forced to self-isolate as a result of being in contact with confirmed cases. Students who spoke to the Guardian said the university had failed to support students who were stuck in their flats for weeks on end.
They say food parcels have been insufficient and welfare checks sporadic or nonexistent, while young students have been confined to their flats for 24 hours a day, with no opportunity to exercise or, in some cases, even see natural light.
“People are not getting enough food,” said Saranya Thambirajah, a 19-year-old politics and sociology student from London. “There’s countless stories of people receiving one or two boxes [of food] for an eight-person flat for a whole two weeks; people not receiving vegetarian food if they’re vegetarian, or gluten-free and other dietary requirements like that; people receiving boxes with peanuts in them if they are allergic.”
Oliver Bulbrook, 18, also from London, who is studying English, said he and his five flatmates had been forced to self-isolate after one had come into contact with someone who tested positive.
— Rent Strike Bristol (@RentStrikeBris) October 16, 2020
“Despite registering as self-isolating on the first day it took just over a week for the food parcel from the university to arrive, and then, when it did, it was only suitable for two people and we were a flat of six,” he said.
Not only were the food packages insufficient, students said, but in many cases they did not contain essential items like cleaning products, tampons and sanitary towels.
Students said that security staff had been posted in halls to enforce Covid regulations, but with no clear communication from the university about what their powers were. In some cases security had threatened to fine students for having more than six people in their kitchens, despite those students living in flats of eight or 14 residents.
The university said that security staff were needed to ensure that students were behaving in “a responsible and lawful manner” and that it had offered laundry services, cleaning products and welfare support. “Students who aren’t having to self-isolate are still able to attend face-to-face learning and move around freely within government guidelines,” a spokesperson said.
But students said the university was failing to live up to its promises, and that face-to-face learning provision was gradually being eliminated. Louis Holmes, 19, a politics and international relations student from Leeds, said he had had only two in-person seminars since beginning his course on 5 October.
“We’re supposed to have three in-person seminars a fortnight, although these are slowly moving online because so many students are having to self-isolate,” he said.
Bulbrook added: “They brought us all here on the promise that there would be face-to-face teaching, that we would need to be in Bristol to do that teaching, and now, with so many people self-isolating, they’ve broken that promise.”
The university spokesperson said: “We welcome further discussions with representatives from Cut the Rent and Bristol students’ union, but this is an issue that is affecting all universities at the moment and our actions are guided by Public Health England and the authorities to limit the spread of coronavirus.”