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Hundreds of students join rent strike against private accommodation providers

HUNDREDS of students joined a rent strike today in protest against private landlords who have refused to cancel fees for the summer term.

Many students have had to vacate their halls of residence and return to their family homes for their safety as universities closed down amid the coronavirus outbreak.

While some providers like the University of Portsmouth agreed to waive summer-term fees, others such as Sanctuary Students have refused to release students from their contracts.

At the University of Bristol, students in university-owned halls are not being charged if they move out, but about 500 first-years in private halls may be forced to cough up £1,500.

Grassroots student movement Liberate the University is co-ordinating private university halls’ rents strikes, alongside SOAS Student’s Union and students from London School of Economics (LSE). 

The group’s chair, Isaac Hanson, told the Star that private accommodation companies were refusing to let tenants out of their contracts early even if they had left their accommodation. 

He said: “This is more than just unfair: it is potentially forcing students who rely on part-time jobs, many of which have been cut, into debt. 

“We currently have over 100 students striking, but Sanctuary still refuses to acknowledge our existence, responding with stock messages sent to all students.”

Mr Hanson said their campaign had won concessions from the University of London, which revised its policy. 

He said: “They initially were only going to let students out of their contracts early if they could collect their belongings before April 1, which was dangerous for all and impossible for many due to the global lockdown. 

“They are now charging a storage fee which, whilst not ideal, is a big win.

“We are hopeful that Sanctuary Students will hear our demands and change their policy accordingly.”

LSE Masters student Tama Knight, who is one of 314 students signed up to the protest, left her student accommodation at Lillian Knowles House on March 23.

She said she feared for her ability to effectively self-isolate in a building with shared facilities including kitchen, dining and laundry areas.

Ms Knight said: "From a humanitarian standpoint, Sanctuary Students' decision has the potential to financially devastate students, essentially punishing them for making decisions about their safety in a global situation completely outside of their control.

"It is morally wrong to expect students to bear the economic brunt of these challenging times by taking a position so devoid of empathy and solidarity.

"From a more pragmatic standpoint, Sanctuary Students as an organisation can access government support which is largely unavailable to students.”

Ms Knight highlighted that many students, especially international ones, could expect no government-based financial support during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

She added that although people were still receiving student loans, many had lost part-time jobs they had relied on.

"It is ridiculous to expect students to fulfil their contracts as normal in such abnormal times," Ms Knight said.

Student accommodation in the capital costs between £800 and £1,200 a month on average.

Students across Britain have been demanding that universities reimburse them for the teaching time missed because of the lockdown.

A petition demanding reimbursement of tuition fees during earlier strike action has received more than 115,000 signatures from students who are refusing to pay for a service they have not received. 

The Department for Education has urged private hall providers “to consider students' interests and fairness in their decisions about rent charges for this period.”

A Sanctuary Students statement said: "While we understand that you must make the right decision for your health and well-being, and that of your family's, we regret that we cannot terminate any contracts early if you have decided to leave your accommodation.

"We realise this will be disappointing for you but it is not a decision we have taken lightly.

"Many of our students rely on us to continue providing them with a safe and secure home, and without us, they would be at risk of becoming homeless."

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