Solidarity with workers, parents and pupils fighting Johnson’s reckless back to school plan

photo by vperemen.com/CC

Socialist Students statement

Socialist Students stands in solidarity with school staff unions, workers, parents and pupils who are fighting to halt the government’s reckless drive towards the reopening of schools in England before it is safe to do so. The premature further opening of schools in the absence of wide scale national testing, tracing and isolation systems endangers the health and safety of pupils and staff, as well as their families.

The government announcement about the further opening of the schools came at the same time that Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that workers, particularly in manufacturing and construction, should return to work. The Tory strategy to deal with covid so far – including the lateness of the initial lockdown – has always been based on what is most profitable for their big business bankrollers, not what is best for ordinary people.

The Tory drive to further open the schools then has nothing to do with helping children or parents – its about providing childcare so the bosses have an easier time of telling working class people to get back to work to restart the bosses’ profits.

One of the school worker unions, the National Education Union (NEU) has produced ‘five tests’ for the safe further opening of schools, including a much lower count of new covid cases and comprehensive access to testing for staff and students.

Socialist Students demands that these five tests are met before the discussion of a timetable to return students and staff to schools is begun. Wherever school staff or students are being forced to attend school in unsafe conditions, Socialist Students calls for the building of campaign groups to draw together school workers, parents and pupils alongside the school unions to take collective action to refuse to send pupils and workers back to schools in unsafe conditions.

Plymouth rent strikes win concessions – but the fight isn’t over

Sioned Freer, Plymouth Student Rent Strike Coordinator

A month in, the Plymouth student rent strike now has 750 group members, with over 230 pledged to withhold. The subject of student rent has quickly become a massive national talking point – we have had coverage from international media and TV coverage from the BBC. Famous faces and MP’s are also coming out in support of student rent strikes despite the government doing little to address the issue. We’ve received a huge amount of support nationally for the massive amount of people affected by this issue.

In response to a national rent strike effort, The Student Housing Company – who own Beckley Point in Plymouth – have now offered 50% reductions for those who don’t rebook and a 100% reduction for those who do. Although TSHC tenants are still fighting for a fairer resolution for final year students, this is a massive win for rent strikers – proving that rent strikes work and companies can and will meet our demands if we stand together.

We have received very little communication from other landlords and letting agencies in Plymouth. Some companies choose to simply ignore their tenants’ struggles, while others have been outright rude – a Pencraig Developments (StudentRooms) tenant received a devastating email in response to her pleas for rent reduction where the company told her “You won’t be receiving any sympathy from us.” If landlords and letting agents continue to ignore their tenants – insisting that they’re entitled to what in many cases is our only source of income and pointing us towards government guidelines that weren’t written with students in mind – it could have a massive detrimental impact on the student population as a whole. A recent survey by Ipsos Mori has shown that young people (18 – 30) are being disproportionately financially impacted by the pandemic, but despite this, there is very little government help for students. At a time when many of us and our families have lost jobs, fallen sick, or lost loved ones, we simply cannot throw thousands of pounds at accommodation we can’t even use.

Socialist Students demands;

  • For universities to provide rent free accommodation for students and international students who are unable to get home because of self-isolation, transport cancellations etc. No evictions of any students who are unable to pay the rent.
  • For the right of students who have been forced to move home because of the coronavirus to withdraw from their housing contracts early without the loss of any deposit.
  • For universities to provide affordable and decent accommodation for students. For rents capped at no higher than a quarter of the average student maintenance loan – end the driving of students into the arms of rip off landlords and letting agencies. Ban all agency and contract fees.
  • For the establishment of democratic student rent strike committees across accommodation to organise mass collective non-payment of rent campaigns when necessary. 

Coronavirus – a students’ charter

Housing

  • For universities to provide rent free accommodation for students and international students who are unable to get home because of self-isolation, transport cancellations etc. No evictions of any students who are unable to pay the rent.
  • For the right of students who have been forced to move home because of the coronavirus to withdraw from their housing contracts early without the loss of any deposit.
  • For universities to provide affordable and decent accommodation for students. For rents capped at no higher than a quarter of the average student maintenance loan – end the driving of students into the arms of rip off landlords and letting agencies. Ban all agency and contract fees.
  • For the establishment of democratic student rent strike committees across accommodation to organise mass collective non-payment of rent campaigns when necessary. 

Health and safety

  • For adequate PPE for all medical students who have been drafted into the NHS to treat people with coronavirus – cancel their student debt and provide nursing students with bursaries they can live on! For the right of any students prematurely called into the health service to return to university with full access to learning resources and at no extra financial expense.
  • No trust in the university bosses to handle to crisis! For democratic trade union and student oversight of all measures taken on the campus to stop the spread of the virus. Establish an all-union health and safety committee on every campus, with democratic representation of staff and students.
  • Take all privatised cleaning and other services back in-house to ensure democratic oversight and decent pay, safety and conditions for all workers on campus.
  • For universities to produce emergency funding for the provision of support services for students who are forced to self-isolate, including the equipment needed for home study, health provision and food delivery where necessary.
  • For full funding for doctors surgeries and mental health clinics on campuses. For adequate numbers of GPs and other health workers to be determined by campus health workers unions and students. For universities to provide remote counselling services for students who require them.

Campus cuts and free education

  • No cuts to jobs or services on campus because of the coronavirus slowdown! If there is a funding shortfall, open the books to democratic inspection by the campus unions and to democratically elected committees of students. Show us where the money has gone.
  • Cut vice chancellor pay, not jobs and workers’ pay! For democratically elected campus remuneration committees.
  • Immediately scrap all zero hours contracts on campus and replace them with guaranteed hours on a real living wage. Bring all outsourced work back in-house.
  • For the right of students who have suffered disruption to their teaching because of the coronavirus to retake the year without academic or financial penalisation.
  • End overcrowding on the university campuses! Vice chancellors and university bosses are chasing profits – for democratic trade union and student oversight over the applications process to ensure decent education for students and manageable workload for campus workers. Any increase in student numbers to be met with at least a proportionate increase in funding for teaching resources, services on campus, and affordable accommodation for students.
  • Fight for fully funded and free education! For a university education system which is run for the benefit of society, not for profit – reverse all cuts and marketisation on campus, replace student loans with student living grants, and cancel all outstanding student debt.
  • Fight for a socialist alternative to capitalism. Bring the 150 biggest banks and monopolies into democratic public ownership, under the management and control of the working class, with compensation to be paid to the shareholders only on the basis of proven need. Introduce a democratic socialist plan of production to provide free education and a decent future for all.

Students organise against greedy landlords in Plymouth

Sami Vickery, Plymouth College of Art

I write on behalf of the tenants of the Old Dairy, a student accommodation under the Host Student Accommodation umbrella located in Plymouth.

The Old Dairy is private rented accommodation provided by Host Student Accommodation to students in the University of Plymouth and Plymouth College of Art. It is one of the few Plymouth student let buildings that have yet to put into place measures to assist students during these special circumstances such as rent discounts or early cancellation of our tenancy agreements.

These current times are extremely stressful and difficult, especially as we don’t know what’s going to happen regarding our studies, which is why we ask that our voices be heard. Rather than staying in large blocks of shared flats, a lot of students have opted to return to our families, to ensure we’re adhering to social distancing recommendations.

With many students having returned home we are unhappy that we are still required to pay in full for our accommodation when our college has shut. We’re even expected to pay utilities as part of our rent, utilities that simply aren’t being used since many of us are not present in our flats. The situation has been acknowledged by Host in an email; ultimately however, Host has told us that no action will be taken and that no changes will be made to tenant contracts.

Students have collected over 400 signatories in less than a week for a petition demanding changes to Host’s cancellation policy to allow students to exit their contracts early due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Host Student Accommodation has repeatedly denied any attempts for early termination, and will only do so if you receive a letter from your GP to exempt you from the tenancy agreement. This further highlights how poorly this is being handled, opting to take away precious time from doctors, who are the only ones to send off these documents, to settle petty disputes. This proves that Host Students Accommodation has chosen money over morals.

Discussion about the possibility of a rent strike and reaching out to the press are currently being held by the Old Dairy student body, however we feel that it is unreasonable that it has even gotten to this point.

Our colleges and universities have shut; does the government seriously expect students to pay for our rent in full when and many of us have lost jobs or are on reduced pay? Surely it’s not unreasonable to not pay for accommodation we’re not using?

Socialist Students demands;

  • For universities to provide rent free accommodation for students and international students who are unable to get home because of self-isolation, transport cancellations etc. No evictions of any students who are unable to pay the rent.
  • For the right of students who have been forced to move home because of the coronavirus to withdraw from their housing contracts early without the loss of any deposit.
  • For universities to provide affordable and decent accommodation for students. For rents capped at no higher than a quarter of the average student maintenance loan – end the driving of students into the arms of rip off landlords and letting agencies. Ban all agency and contract fees.
  • For the establishment of democratic student rent strike committees across accommodation to organise mass collective non-payment of rent campaigns when necessary. 

Universities Sack Workers Without Warning

Reece Lawton, Nottingham University Socialist Students

Coronavirus is laying bare the callous nature and inefficiency of capitalism. Universities are ostensibly centres where knowledge is pursued for love of knowledge, yet even education is driven by the relentless pursuit for profit. This is becoming more and more apparent as this epidemic continues.

Sackings are taking place in universities across the country because of the anticipated funding shortfall linked to coronavirus. The University of London laid off agency bar workers outrageously through a text and a Facebook post. There were no meetings, no discussions with staff or unions- just immediate sacking of already low paid and precarious workers.

Hundreds of lecturers, researchers and student support workers employed on fixed term contracts have already been told that their employment will or may be ended prematurely, or will not be renewed in the future. With an estimated 70% of researchers in universities employed on temporary contracts, many more university workers will be fearful for the security of their jobs.

These are a few examples of how universities are acting under the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they are part of a larger pattern of behaviour of universities caring little for staff. That’s why members of the University and Colleges Union, which organises teaching staff in universities, were recently forced to take strike action across 79 universities over the issues of casualisation, unequal pay, and unpaid overtime, as well as management attacks on pensions.

This happens while the Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors are paid (often by themselves) an average of £256,000 a year!

The silver lining is that, like in numerous other workplaces across the country, university workers are getting organised and fighting back. Sacked bar staff at the University of London have begun organising through their local trade union and are demanding full pay.

Students are also getting organised. In Glasgow for example students have gone on rent strike.

Socialist Students demands not a single cut or redundancy is carried out on the university campuses under the excuse of the coronavirus crisis. If management are threatening cuts, then they should open the books to democratic inspection by trade unions and democratically elected committees of students so that we can see where the money has gone.

And if we find there really isn’t enough money, then we need to fight the Tories for the funding our universities desperately need! Students and workers should not be made to pay for this crisis. Instead, Socialist Students fights for free education – a Higher Education system which is publicly owned and funded, and run under democratic control and management of trade unions and students.  

Glasgow students withhold rent in fightback against greedy landlords

Oisin Duncan, Glasgow Young Socialists and Socialist Students

University students in Glasgow have begun a rent withholding campaign after their student accommodation company, Nido, expected students to continue to pay rent during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A Students Resident Committee has been set up to organise this protest. It is shameful, in such a difficult and stressful period, that student accommodation companies like Nido Student continue to firstly provide zero guidance on the future of tenants’ contracts, and secondly that they still expect to collect this month’s rent!

Glasgow Young Socialists have read the statement from the Student Resident Committee released today, and extend our full solidarity to those who have taken the impressive initiative to organise on this crucial issue of rent payments during the lockdown. 

To echo and support the points made by the Committee in their statement, it is not only unfair but also totally impractical for Nido to expect rent payments while many students simply will not have the income available to cover these. As pointed out in the statement, the Student Loans Company will continue to pay out during the lockdown, but should this money be immediately paid on to the landlord? 

Most student loan payments amount to around £1,000 for three months – Nido charges £580-700 a month for rent in Glasgow. The company is therefore quite clearly placing their own income above the financial stability and mental health of their tenants, as students would barely have enough money to pay for their groceries or transport home. 

It doesn’t take a maths graduate to work out that these numbers don’t add up – but the argument may be made by Nido that they simply need this income to continue operations. This seems dubious given the fact that private student accommodation seems to be a booming sector in Glasgow (given that Boyce House was just built in September and another block is under construction on Dobbie’s Loan). 

However, if this is truly the case then Nido should open up their books to the Student Resident Committee’s democratic oversight. This would allow the committee not only to verify the claim, but also to participate and take a leading role in figuring out an alternative method of funding the company. 

Regardless, Unite Students (another private accommodation firm) have set a precedent in Glasgow by allowing tenants out of their contracts if they so wish. The Student Resident Committee has rightly pointed this out, and Young Socialists echo the call on Nido to do the same. 

Nido Student, as with all landlords, have a sole duty to provide shelter to their tenants. However, in such a tumultuous period, they simply cannot expect business to continue as usual. The Student Resident Committee has every right to withhold payment until the management complies with the request for more information on the company’s intention. 

The current pandemic, and the government-imposed lockdown, have thrown the routine functioning of Scottish society into disarray. Students have been greatly affected as universities have cancelled classes and many workplaces have shut their doors (including all of the bars, cafes and restaurants where thousands of students work part-time). 

Add to this the recent news that Easyjet, along with other airlines like Ryanair, has grounded all commercial flights means that students who’ve come to Scotland from overseas may be unable to get home for weeks or even months.

Young Socialists members will do our best to support the Student Resident Committee in the event of this, and we call on students and workers to struggle alongside us for suspension of rents during the pandemic and tenants’ right to terminate their contracts if they wish. 

Coronavirus and the campuses

Covid-19, photo NIH/CC

Theo Sharieff, Socialist Students national organiser

As coronavirus has spread onto the university campuses, so has the discussion amongst students and workers on campus about how best to combat the spread of the virus and ensure the health and safety of students and workers.

Universities across the UK have made the announcement that they are offering only online teaching as a precautionary measure to limit face to face interactions and group gatherings to try and slow the spread of the virus.

But as is the case elsewhere in society, the coronavirus crisis has brutally exposed the fragility of the university system after a decade of Tory driven austerity and marketisation. It has also thrust forwards the fundamental question of who is most capable of handling and containing the outbreak of the virus on campus – university management, or workers and students themselves?

Years of Tory cuts and marketisation had seen universities stretched to their very limit even before the arrival of the coronavirus crisis. For the past three years,  university workers in the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have been forced into taking strike action as university management have presided over the explosion of zero hours contracts, a spiralling of workload, a collapse in pay and vicious attacks on pensions.

Meanwhile, the salaries of senior management on the campuses have skyrocketed – vice chancellors now earn an average of £253,000 a year, while nearly half earn over £300,000 a year, and six earn more than £500,000.

The trebling of tuition fees in 2010 by the Tory Liberal coalition marked a shift in how universities were funded, with central government funding for universities ultimately replaced by students’ tuition fees of up to nine thousands pounds a year. Students waged an almighty struggle on university campuses locally and nationally against the trebling of tuition fees.

With universities increasingly dependent on tuition fees as their main source of funding, the campuses have been packed to the gills with students without being accompanied alongside adequate increases in staffing and campus services to handle the massively increased intake of students. Students have suffered the overcrowding of lectures, seminars and libraries, cuts to student services, and extortionate rents for student housing as landlords squeeze as much profit out of students’ maintenance loans as possible.

Only in February was it revealed that management in a number of universities were caught asking students to sit in cafes and other spaces on campus to watch their lectures live streamed! This is a clear consequence of the removal of the cap of the maximum number of students as university management chase tuition fees and the maximum profits they can extract from higher education.

Where does all this leave universities in the face of the growing coronavirus crisis? Not well prepared at all! With staff already overstretched and student support services cut to the bone, university management should ensure emergency funding to make sure that full information and support is available to students, as well as full provision for health needs, including for soaps and sanitary provisions, and also the availability of food deliveries for students who are forced to self-isolate at university.

But how can university management be trusted to prioritise the health of students and staff on campus? Their priority for years has been to keep the money flowing, and to ensure the maximum profitability of the university system for the management at the top of the pile – why would the outbreak of the coronavirus be any different to them?

Socialist Students demands that the campus trade unions, alongside democratically elected committees of students, assume democratic oversight of the measures being taken to contain the virus on campuses. Only then could it be guaranteed that adequate measures are being taken in order to keep students and staff safe.

Reports have also suggested that universities are expecting a significant slowdown in the numbers of international students applying to university for the next academic year. A mere 10% fall in applications of students from China and other countries internationally affected by the virus could see a funding blackhole of approximately £200 million.

Socialist Students demands that any funding shortfall linked to the slowdown due to the coronavirus is not paid for by students or workers in the form of job cuts, attacks to working conditions, or by the further marketisation of higher education. If universities are struggling for funding as a result of the coronavirus, open the books to the democratic inspection of unions and students unions so we can see where our tuition fees are going, and so workers and students can launch a campaign for the funding we need from central government.

Campus workers will be asked to shoulder the burden of the crisis in more ways than this however. It is the workforce on campus – lecturers, teachers, admin and maintenance workers, cleaners, porters and other workers – who are dealing with the fall out of the virus, and will be at risk themselves of infection. We demand all workers should receive full pay and be excluded from any attendance management procedures, including zero hours contract workers on campus.

Socialist Students demands;

  • No more cuts to our education! Open the books to inspection by campus unions and elected student representatives.
  • For universities to produce emergency funding for the provision of support services for students who are forced to self-isolate at university, including health provision and food delivery where necessary. Students unions should be launching such campaigns on campuses.
  • No trust in the university bosses to handle to crisis! For democratic trade union and student union oversight of all measures taken to stop the spread of the virus.
  • For the right of students to defer their exams for a year without academic penalisation.
  • For universities to provide rent free accommodation for students and international students who are unable to get home because of self-isolation, transport cancellations etc.
  • Fight for fully funded and free education! Reverse all cuts and marketisation on campus, cancel student debt, and restore living grants for students!