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Nouse talks to York Student Solidarity Network about rent strikes and tuition fee reductions

An official rent strike will be taking place at the University until student's demands are met

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With rent strikes by dissatisfied students gaining momentum across the country, Nouse spoke to the York Student Solidarity Network (YSSN), who have been organising their own protests at the university’s handling of the pandemic and are due to embark on their own official rent strike.

We asked the York Student Solidarity Network for their main aims and these were grouped into four groups.

Firstly, the reimbursement of rent for the year 2020-2021 for all students in York with “a minimum 40% rent cut for the rest of this academic year and for as long as Covid-19 continues to affect campus life, as well as a reimbursement of all rent paid to the university thus far.” This recompensation will mainly affect those living on campus so the YSSN ask that the University “provide legal counsel and funding to support students [who are renting off campus] in breaking out of their letting contracts.”

YSSN justify this recompensation by suggesting that students have been misguided over what they would experience this term, from online learning to accommodation. Many students nationally have also suggested that UK universities have made promises they could not keep to secure tuition fees and rent payments.

YSSN stated that “The general and vague advice that students should return to university and look forward to a return to normality was misguided and uninformed by scientific data  resulting in a situation where students are forced to pay rent in York, already inflated by market demands, for properties and university accommodation that they simply do not need. University accommodation especially was marketed as 'Covid-secure' but has inevitably become a series of containment blocks, with the virus spreading quickly within them forcing students to isolate.”

“The transition to online learning for all to work from their out-of-term-time addresses should have been made, wherever possible, at an earlier date for the safety of staff and students and the financial security of all going forward. The decision not to do this can only be explained as a clear effort to exploit students for the financial gain of the University.”

Secondly, YSSN has asked for greater investment in the support of student’s mental and physical health. This would include moving all teaching online for the protection of student and staff populations and providing a mental health system with trained professionals funded by the University.

The University should be “reaching out to students in a more streamlined and accessible way that always involves contact with a professional and not just an online service that cannot detect urgency or provide reassurance with immediate effect. This should also be a service extended to staff who are encouraged, alongside students, currently to rely solely on peer-to-peer support that, on the whole, does not ensure confidentiality nor provide medical accountability.”

YSSN have also called for the creation of a People’s Assembly which will give students a say in decisions affecting their learning, health and finances. This Assembly would be a “democratic forum to be held on a semi-regular basis or when called for in response to states of emergency.”

It would be an “organised space in which all members of the University community can participate in an open discussion of all matters, contest board and management decisions as well as provide useful solutions and input as a result of their own experiences and priorities. This is also a forum in which we can begin to explore  methods to decolonise and democratise the education provided.”

Finally, YSSN is aiming to negotiate a reduction in tuition fees for the year 2020-2021. This has been a consistent demand from students across the UK since March 2020 with a variety of petitions being discussed in the House of Commons yet reaching no solution. YSSN believes that not only do the extortionate tuition fees leave students “financially disadvantaged” after leaving university, and it also discourages thousands of young people from  pursuing higher education, resulting in education becoming a commodity for the wealthy.

YSSN have stated that “it is at the University's discretion to offer reduced fees to students and to ensure also that their profits benefit teaching and essential service staff salaries at the University, something it continues to refuse to do.”

After outlining their main aims, Nouse asked YSSN about the support they’ve had from students so far. The response from students has overall been very encouraging with their Instagram page @yorkstudentsolidaritynetwork gaining 600 followers in the last few weeks. YSSN also thanked the variety of organisations that have showed them support:

“As well as support from other students we have also had a great response from the TUC and the UCU, who have been really great in supporting us, and students from York St Johns with the @9k4WhatYork campaign. YSSN also continues to support other crucial campaigns run by students such as The Last Taboo campaign, fighting for greater protection against sexual harassment and violence towards University of York students.”

This demonstration of extra support brought Nouse to ask what YSSN’s next steps were, should the University refuse to compromise. The University of Manchester’s students have become a national inspiration after successfully negotiating a thirty percent rent reduction, after weeks of protests which culminated in students occupying a building and this success has resulted in several other universities beginning to see similar protests.

YSSN have already had two protests and will continue to protest until discussion with the University begins. Whilst some YUSU officers have responded, there has been no response from the University other than “huge intimidation measures from campus security and police.”

YSSN does not believe the University should refuse to negotiate as “there are some serious ethical issues that the University is to be held accountable for.”

Finally Nouse asked YSSN for their thoughts on how the University should support off campus students who still have to pay high rent and tuition fees for online learning.
YSSN believes that “it has been made very clear by University heads that a mentality of ‘not on campus, not our problem’ has widely been assumed.”

“With minimal to no contact hours, restricted access to the library and limited college support facilities, students are largely left to deal with the anxieties and worries of their studies on top of COVID-19 related problems, relationship issues, loneliness and new financial stresses.”

Whilst academic support has been consistent in some departments, there is no expectation for this to be the case across all departments. This also needs to include the support staff are receiving with managing new online technologies, finding time and resources to complete research interests and also support within their personal lives.”

York Student Solidarity Network will be holding a protest at 4:30 today (2nd December) in front of the York Minster with @9k4whatforyork

To pledge to support their official rent strike and not pay rent to the University on the 31st January unless YSSN’s demands are met, visit @yorkstudentsolidaritynetwork | Linktree

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