Students in rent strike over Queen Mary's campus staying open during Covid emergency
- Credit: QMUL stockshot
Hundreds of students have gone on rent strike at Queen Mary University over having to pay rent at the Mile End campus if they stay at home while it remains open.
Most are staying home on government advice to avoid travelling to the campus in the heart of an area with high rates of Covid cases.
The dispute is one of 50 at UK universities over the way they have responded to the latest government lockdown.
The students at Mile End claim Queen Mary’s has shown “little regard” to the community. Tower Hamlets has 1,200 Covid infections in every 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in the country.
The Royal London Hospital, where many students work, reached a crisis point on December 31, they point out.
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University chancellor Colin Bailey wrote to the 300 students last week and advised them they are “very welcome to return” to the halls of residence should they need to.
But the rent strikers say this puts them "between a rock and a hard place” having to choose between risking the virus and possibly spreading it by returning, or leaving their accommodation empty while still paying for it.
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Other universities like UCL have told students they can cancel rental contracts if necessary, the strikers say. Some, like those at Cambridge, have had fees waived for the lockdown to avoid spreading the virus, while those at Manchester have received reductions due to disruptions to the academic year.
Some campaigners even call for the university to close “in line with government guidelines” and allow students out of their rent contracts, having given a February 5 deadline to respond.
Tower Hamlets councillors have also been approached for support, hinting at demands at the next council meeting that the campus be closed on health grounds.
“All options are on the table," Cllr Puru Miah told the East London Advertiser. “Queen Mary’s has a duty of care towards its students, especially in time of a Covid crisis.”
He worries that an influx of students could put at risk the population in his Mile End constituency, which includes Queen Mary’s.
He supports the protest over rents being charged to students for unused accommodation.
“Some private landlords aren’t collecting rents,” Cllr Miah adds. “One I know with properties in the area isn’t asking for rent from his tenants during the emergency. Queen Mary’s should do the same or reduce rents, like other universities.”
Queen Mary’s, however, insists “current government guidance is clear that universities should remain open to support research and those who don’t have facilities to study or work from home”.
So it is keeping campus facilities going for those who need them. It has at least conceded to one of the students' demands for a rebate on cancelled rent agreements.
Their spokesman said: “We have offered a 30pc rent reduction on the full remaining term of their agreement, recognising the impact of the national restrictions. We have also made a comparable offer to postgraduate students who are unable to return.”
One undergraduate has told of having students with Covid put in isolation right next to his room.
Oliver Hegedus, first-year student from Billericay who had recovered from a bout of the virus, told Cllr Miah: “Two people just in from Italy and India were quarantined next to me and our toilets didn’t work. I had to pay rent for that.
“The university is supposed to improve my life — but just made things worse. They seem like a cowboy landlord rather than university.”
The students pay rents that start at £145 a week, but want no penalty for early release from contracts during the Covid lockdown as it is “unsafe for the Tower Hamlets community” if they return to Mile End. They are demanding rebates for accommodation they can’t use due to the emergency and want “better welfare support for those in isolation” who they say are left to fend for themselves.