A year of campaigns: Manchester students secure historic rent strike win – but the fight doesn’t end here

In this Challenge article from last November, Hannah Phillips writes on the Manchester University student rent strike, arguing that the success must be a call to action for students across Britain to fight against sky-high fees, extortionate accommodation and inadequate courses

Hannah Phillips, is the YCL North West District’s Women’s Officer and a student at the University of Manchester

Fourteen days ago myself and my comrades snuck in through the fire escape door of Owens Park Tower, laundry bags of clothes, pot noodles, and sleeping bags in hand. Today we walk out the front entrance victorious, red smoke flares held high. After two weeks of occupation, the University has finally conceded to our demands.

Despite consistently refusing to meet with us, and trying to appease us with an insulting 5% reduction in rent earlier this week, the University has now, as a result of sustained direct action, agreed to reduce rent by 30% for the entirety of the first semester. This amounts to a £12 million payout to the students, which makes this the largest win for a university rent strike in known history.

The experience of being in the occupation, from the minute we secured the lobby with a barricade of sofas and stuck our legal rights on the front doors, to our victorious exit today, was inspiring. From the nights spent on watch by the doors to the days spent painting banners 20 metres long. From the press interviews, meetings and strategising, to the music-making. This experience showed me what it really means to be a young communist – to be at the forefront of a battle against a huge faceless entity like the University, and to win.

The fact that a small group of students (and their network of staff and supporters) were able to force a corporation that turns over more than a billion pounds per year to pay out such a sum is not an anomaly, but a small indicator of what class power can achieve. So much can be gained by banding together, for the good of everyone.

Occupiers man a barricade in the tower
Occupiers man a barricade in the tower

The University of Manchester was counting on the fact that all of their students would quietly accept being treated like customers, viewed as nothing more than walking bags of cash. They conned us into coming back to campus – despite the COVID risks to ourselves and the community – on the promise of in-person teaching, only to move all learning online a few days before lectures started. They were not expecting us to fight back, and when met with the resistance of united students they have finally caved in.

In 2010, Students from all across the UK descended on London to demonstrate against tuition fees rising to what they thought was an astronomical £9000 a year, in what became known as the “Student Riots”. Then as now, students understood that they were being mugged off. 10 years on we should remember the anger they felt, and feel it too. 

This is not the end, however. We should not just be asking why we are paying 9k fees for a degree we feel is inadequate, but asking why anyone should ever have to pay 9k fees in the first place. In the Soviet Union, higher education was provided for free at the point of need. In Cuba, the state will fund your entire highly specialised education to become a doctor. If these are “failed states” and the UK in 2020 is so much more advanced, then why are we so far behind in this? 

After all, education is a human right and should be state-funded and free at the point of need. One of the most popular policies of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was a National Education Service – the fact that our Tory neoliberal government cannot even plan out and fund higher education for its young people just goes to show how weak capitalism really is.

This win is just the beginning, students are still fighting. Hundreds more are rent striking in January, and 9K4what groups are active and growing in cities all across the UK. Paying extortionate tuition fees to Universities that are run as businesses has to end. Learning driven by profit has to end. The system that allows young people to be exploited merely for their education, has to end, whatever it takes. If a few students can take over a building fit to house 1,056 people with minimum resources, imagine what could happen if more students banded together and fought for their right to free education? 

Hannah Phillips

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