Student rent strikers leave occupied buildings amid legal threats from university

‘We have decided to leave because we were not in a position to risk criminal charges,’ rent striker tells The Independent

Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 12 May 2021 10:21
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Students at the University of Manchester hang flags out of an occupied building on campus
Students at the University of Manchester hang flags out of an occupied building on campus

Student protesters occupying buildings on campus have been forced to leave after their universities took - or threatened - them with legal action.

Several rent strike groups, who are withholding rent to demand rent reductions and other concessions from universities, set up camp in buildings weeks ago across the country.

But ones in Manchester and Sheffield have now been forced to abandon their occupation - but have vowed to continue their protests.

Rent strikers at Sheffield University said they were leaving the occupied building after the university won a interim possession order (IPO) - a legal device used to remove squatters.

Squatters can be imprisoned if they do not leave the property within 24 hours of being served an IPO.

After receiving notice of a hearing for the IPO, rent strikers called the legal move “heavy-handed” and said it “represents an institutional stifling of freedom of speech” by the university.

The group said it remained “resolutely committed” to securing its demands, which includes a 30 per cent rent rebate for students in university-owned accommodation and clauses allowing them to leave contracts early without any penalty.

It comes as university life on campus has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted who is allowed on campus for face-to-face teaching for months and what - and how - facilities can open.

The group has also demanded full refund for all students - including those on campus - during the latest national lockdown, which has kept some students away from campus since the start of the year, while others carried on with in-person classes.

Meanwhile, University of Manchester students said they have vacated a building after being warned of the potential for legal action.

Mattie Shannon, who was involved in the occupation of the Sam Alex building on campus, told The Independent the group were sent a letter by the university last week “threatening legal action” if they stayed on past Monday.

“We have decided to leave because we were not in a position to risk criminal charges,” she said.

The student told The Independent: “It is clear they have decided to use dirty tactics to get us out rather than actually meeting with us and agreeing to our demands.”

Her rent strike group is calling for a 30 per cent rent rebate for all students in university halls for semester two, after a successful campaign - including a tower occupation - the term before.

They also want a £1,500 cash rebate for students, the introduction of elections for leadership positions and a commitment of no compulsory staff redundancies.

The University of Manchester rent strike group said in a tweet: “The university has refused to engage with the Sam Alex occupiers and has threatened us with legal action that could criminalise further occupations and lead to violent evictions.”

They said it had become clear that the “university isn’t listening” to the group - who are demanding a rent reduction - and “continuting our occupation won’t change that”.

“With a heavy heart, we are leaving the occupation so we can fight another day. If the longest occupation in Manchester since the 70s can’t force change in our university, we have to escalate with new radical tactics,” the group said.

Meanwhile, a Sheffield Hallam University rent striker told The Independent their protest group will be vacating an occupied building on campus after being issued with disciplinary hearings from the university and due to uncomfortable living conditions after access to showers, microwaves and fridges were blocked.

The student, who wished to stay anonymous, accused security of “intimidation tactics” and trying to “make our lives as difficult as possible”, including them “stopping us getting sanitation and food”. 

The rent strike group claimed in a tweet earlier this week a student was locked in a room by security in the building, with the door unlocked after police were contacted.

Sheffield Hallam University has been approached for comment.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The students who have been occupying the Samuel Alexander Building have now left. With a full and welcome return to in-person teaching from 17 May, we will now begin the process of cleaning the building and ensuring it is Covid secure again for the use of staff and students.”

A University of Sheffield spokersperon 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.”

Students unable to access university-owned or managed accomodation due to Covid-19 restrictions had been waived rent and offered early contract releases, they said, while a £3m Covid Support Fund for those facing financial difficulties had been set up.

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