As thousands of uni students pledge to go on rent strike over unused rooms, they're speaking up about the dire handling of Covid-19 within higher education.

As thousands of uni students pledge to go on rent strike over unused rooms, they're speaking up about the dire handling of Covid-19 within higher education.

Since attending University last September, swathes of students have been confined to small rooms without adequate access to food and mental health support. Many have dealt with mould, leaks, infestations, all the while, living with the constant threat of contracting Covid-19, as University halls emerge as a hotbed for the virus. While it was never going to be a normal academic year, few students could have anticipated just how bad the reality would be. 

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson announced that schools would close and that A-Levels and GCSEs would be cancelled after mounting pressure forced the Government to U-turn. Glaringly omitted from the announcement, though, was support for university students, many of whom are being kept off campus and expected to pay rent for rooms they cannot use. 

Students across the county have been taking matters into their own hands over their Universities’ dire handling of Covid-19. Last year, Manchester University Students won a 30 per cent rent cut, triggering a wave of Uni rent strikes across the country. Now, students are pledging to withhold rent from more than 40 universities, making it the largest rent strike in 40 years. So far, Leeds Uni has said it will give an “appropriate rent refund” for students in halls who have been told not to go back for Spring term.

Many of the problems students face when it comes to Uni accommodation and mental health support already existed, but have been exacerbated by Covid-19. We spoke to students going on strike about what they’ve had to endure this year, and why many feel as if they’ve been left with no choice but to act. 

Foundation year student, Sheffield Hallam University 

“In October, I tested positive for coronavirus (but was asymptotic) so had to self-isolate for 10 days. 

“It was honestly one of the worst 10 days of my life. It was so embarrassing telling my flatmates that I had accidentally brought corona to the flat. One of my flatmates had read my message when she was on the train coming back to Uni, but said she got off the moment she saw my message and went back home. Another one of my flatmates refused to come back to the flat. 

“This left me stuck with two remaining flatmates to self-isolate with – they weren’t exactly pleased. I was starting to get really depressed and had some vodka and anti-depressants in my room. It was really hard, all I did was sleep, I missed all my lectures that week which put me so behind. 

“Support staff said they wouldn’t be able to do too much. And since early November all of their appointments have been booked.

Screenshot of the booking page for mental health appointments at Sheffield Hallam University

“It was also super difficult to get food. I was forced to buy a week’s worth of take-out because all the slots for the supermarkets were not available for another two to three weeks. And for my accommodation, reception closed at 5pm, so you had to order food before then for them to deliver it. 

“I called the council to get some food support for me and my flatmates as they were running out of food too, but the council said they only help vulnerable people and we should ask the University for help. 

“We got sent a box four days later from the Uni, which was supposed to last three of us for 10 to 14 days. The food wasn’t enough and some stuff expired two days later. Our bins also started to pile up and we had a ton of flies in our kitchen. The staff was supposed to come and take them away each day but they never did. 

Being in trapped in my room was not fun, and made me really suicidal.”

Student, University of Lancashire 

“I’m currently staying in University-managed accommodation, and for the first month of being here we had temperamental hot water and no heating at all. 

We were awarded a ‘refund’ of £3 for this, which is to be taken off of this term’s rent for us. This is abysmal, considering the amount we pay for accommodation. Not only this, someone in our flat suffers with Raynaud’s where the cold causes actual permanent nerve damage to their fingers and toes. 

The heating and hot water have continued to not work since then with us having to call porters out to fix it almost every week.”

Food package to feed seven people for two weeks at Newcastle University

First-year student, King’s College London

“What’s it been like? Accommodations have had silverfish and roach infestation, moldy walls, toilets and showers that are leaking everywhere. Mental health provisions have been completely neglected; people with physical and mental illness have been completely unaccounted for. I reached out looking for councillor for gender dysphoria, and only got a response three weeks later. 

“For the entire month of October, I was in self-isolation after someone on my course was identified as a close contact of mine. We had no communication from the college whatsoever – we just had to make our own plans. It was only on day 10 of isolation that we received a food package, anything that was perishable had expired or went out of date in three days.

“We were the only one out of three accommodation sites at King’s that got a rebate for this two-week isolation period. 

“Other stories I’ve heard are Jewish students not getting kosher meals, and people with diabetes medication who need to store their medication in their room who have been completely unaccommodated, since mini-fridges are not contractually allowed in rooms, but they’ve been given no exemption.

The University has no desire to work with students, only against them.”

Bathroom at King’s College London accommodation

Bathroom in King’s College London accommodation

Student, University of Nottingham

“I was staying in halls and went home to isolate, but never told the Uni I was at home. They delivered my food every day thinking I was isolated there. When I came back to Uni there was two weeks worth of food that hadn’t been collected by me – and they didn’t bother to check if I was OK in that room. 

How did not having two weeks of food uncollected didn’t ring alarm bells for them? There was absolutely no support for isolating students and no one checked in at all.”

First-year student, Sheffield Hallam University

“My accommodation has had a silverfish infestation since last year – one recently dropped down on me while I was showering. I put in multiple maintenance requests to seal the cracks in the walls and each time they were marked ‘complete’ without completion. I’m afraid of the infestation getting worse and my clothes and books being damaged.

“The mattress is unusable, I’ve been sleeping on blankets. The apartment had not been cleaned when I moved in: the desk chair was broken, the fridge trays had been kicked in, the toilet seat was stained brown (my roommate found brown stains at the bottom of the bowl). The shower reeked and the window ledge was covered with a thick black mould. 

“Unite has done nothing to enforce Covid rules. Parties in the accommodation and the one opposite begin around 7pm and end at 5am. My roommate was sent a photo from a friend of a security guard who was sent to disperse a flat party and ended up joining the flat party.

“The locks have been removed from the doors. I have twice walked into the kitchen and a staff member had let himself in without my knowing.

“All this for £120 a week, ten of which weeks I will not be able to return to my apartment. That is £1,200 down the grimy drain to have my stuff eaten by silverfish. Lucky me.”

Mice in Sheffield Hallam Uni communal kitchens

Student, University of Portsmouth 

“Just after paying my first deposit for my accommodation, we were told by the Uni we weren’t allowed guests, to visit other people’s flats or have access to any of the communal areas in our building (which is included in our rent). Everyone understands we need to do everything we can to keep people safe at the moment, but we were banned from mixing indoors even when the government guidance allowed it. 

“A lot of students’ frustrations began at this point – it felt like a very calculated move to wait until we had given them our money, and I think a lot of people would have thought twice about moving into halls if they had known what it would be like. 

“When we moved in, our flat was filthy. Despite claims it had been cleaned, we had things missing and things broken.

“A month after I moved in we ended up having to isolate for over two weeks. Some of us were extremely ill, but received absolutely no support from anyone at my accommodation. it was incredibly difficult to get in contact with anyone at reception to ask for our food deliveries to be brought up (as we were not offered any food boxes by them) so when one of my flatmates had to repeatedly phone to ask for his food parcel to be brought to us he was told to stop ‘annoying’ them. 

“As soon as we finished isolating, we found out that we were being put in a national lockdown. due to the toll isolation had taken on our mental health and the after effects of how ill we had been, me and another flatmate were forced to go home for this period with hopes of coming back in December. We then were not able to do so, as this was the period of time where students were told to go home if they wanted to be home for Christmas.

“I then planned to go back at the start of January – when once again – we were put into a lockdown. Because of this, in total, I have spent just six weeks at my accommodation and can’t see any hope of being able to go back any time soon. 

“I have wasted thousands of pounds and my accommodation has refused to consider returning a portion of it or accept why we would ask for some back. Instead, they have spread false information and encouraged students to go back, against government guidance. It’s incredibly frustrating and stressful to spend every penny on somewhere I’m not allowed to go, and for things like communal areas, which I can’t access.

“Everyone understands what needs to be done to be safe in the pandemic, but we are being treated incredibly poorly and no one wants to face up to it – not the government, university or our accommodations.”

First-year student, University of Exeter

“As soon as I moved into my accommodation, I found out that someone in my flat had corona – they just hadn’t reported it to the Uni yet. So after I moved in, we went straight into isolation and obviously caught corona off them – it’s 12 people in a flat and really tight corridors; all the spaces are shared, so that was inevitable. 

“We only got an email telling us to isolate; we didn’t get any warning, we didn’t have any food – we didn’t have anything. The uni told us to order from supermarkets, where the wait for food is five days. So we had to use Deliveroo, which is obviously a lot more expensive. 

“I only got a call about eight days after the positive test asking if we needed anything. That was the only time I heard from the Uni, and I felt better by then anyway. 

“The only reason we came into Uni in the first place was because we were promised in-person teaching (five to six hours a week). In the end, we were given one hour a week, but I had to miss most of them because I was in isolation for 18 days.

“When I tried to contact wellbeing, it was five days for a consult and another two for an appointment. It’s had a huge impact on everyone’s mental health. ”

Daisy Schofield is Huck’s Digital Editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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