Writing by Paula Lacey. Illustration by Heather Baillie.
Although most year groups have been let down by UoE’s mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic, first years undoubtedly bear the brunt of the University’s negligence. Many freshers feel as though they were misled into coming to Edinburgh, having been promised a “hybrid” approach to teaching in order to secure their rent payments to the University. When they found themselves trapped alone in unsatisfactory accommodation conditions, with courses 100% online, simultaneously banned from socialising and blamed for a spike in cases, many were understandably outraged. In October a group of first years started Rent Justice Edinburgh, a campaign group to demand justice for those who have been abandoned with little support in halls, including a rent reduction as a form of compensation. They gathered support through sharing memes and infographics on social media, and at the beginning of November they announced an impending rent strike if the University failed to respond to their demands.
So, how did the campaign get started?
Ellis: Well, around late September early October-ish, there were a lot of people angry at the way students, particularly first years, were being treated by the university in light of the pandemic. This was around the time that Pollock was in the news a lot, the issue was getting quite a bit of media attention, but there wasn’t really a lot of action being taken from students. So me and a few people in our accommodation set up this form to send around to gauge interest in some sort of direct action, and also to see what concerns people were having, what experiences people were having so that we could organise around that.
Reuben: Yeah, one day around the same time I sort of idly brought up the Glasgow rent strike to my accommodation group chat, so we formed a little independent group trying to start organising around all these issues everyone was having. And then by chance we stumbled across the form Ellis had made, so we joined forces to get the campaign going.
Ellis: We got quite a lot of responses from that form, which brought up a range of issues and from there we developed our demands.
What are those demands?
Reuben: With regards to demands, we ultimately decided that we couldn’t just request that the problems and injustices be made to go away, because obviously they are mostly linked to the pandemic. We couldn’t ask anyone to sacrifice public health, or lecturer autonomy, or that kind of thing because that’s unacceptable and goes against what we stand for. So we decided to focus on a rent cut because we saw it as a sort of compensation, in the absence of the ability to rectify the various problems that had been exacerbated by the pandemic. So we thought that compensation in the form of a rent cut would be more just to everyone involved, students and staff. So that’s our first and primary demand; half-rent for all students in university-owned accommodation for the duration of the so-called “hybrid learning” period.
Ellis: Yeah, and our second demand is for improved quality of online learning platforms and free wifi upgrades for all students. This one’s based on conversations with students in halls and also chatting to lecturers and UCU members through the Student-Staff Solidarity network [NB: a group which formed during the UCU strikes and occupations]. Talking to them was really valuable because obviously the issue of in-person teaching is touchy for lecturers, and we realised that demanding that kind of thing jeopardises the safety of both staff and students. Both groups are having issues with wifi quality and asynchronous learning; when you’re stuck in your halls it’s so important to have at least some live lectures to not feel so isolated, and staff really appreciate being able to connect with their students in this way too, so improved online learning platforms and wifi upgrades is the best way to go about this that ensures the safety of both groups.
Reuben: And the third is that any student organising or participating in reasonable action against the university not face legal, academic or financial repercussions. Our demands are valid and proportionate, and we want to unhesitatingly stand in solidarity with any member facing threat or coercion from the university for demanding fair treatment.
And how have you been going about getting support among other students in halls?
Ellis: Well it started with just messaging in halls group chats, being like ‘Hey we’re angry, you’re angry too, we’re gonna do something about it’, linking people to our sign up form to join the WhatsApp group chat. It helped that we weren’t the only universities threatening a rent strike, y’know there’s been a lot of student resistance in Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow among others, so there was an appetite for it. Obviously because we can’t physically go and talk to people, we’ve been using social media a lot, particularly Instagram. There are a few Edinburgh accounts and meme pages and stuff who have boosted us to get more people interested and involved, which has been helpful. It’s really hard to reach out to first years because they’re not really embedded into the uni community yet; they’re not necessarily in the group chats or on the facebook pages or following the Instagram accounts.
Reuben: Yeah, it seems to have been easier to get older students’ support than first years purely because of access; at the start we sent out a few emails to societies and other campaign groups such as MarxSoc and Living Rent who have all responded quite favourably, and we even worked with SSSn on the report on the situation in halls during COVID. But they’re all older students in more established communities, that are supportive of the campaign but not able to actually take part in the strike due to not being in halls. Getting engagement from fellow first years has been a lot more challenging; in the first stages it was easier as there was a lot of buzz around it, y’know the whole Pollock Prisoner thing or whatever, there was a lot of anger flying around but now its quite hard to keep that momentum up.
And have you got a response from the Uni yet?
Ellis: Well, we sent out the open letter a while ago, and within a few days Peter Mathieson had responded... But we’re pretty sure half of it is copied and pasted from other emails that he’d been sending around at that sort of time.
Reuben: Yeah they fobbed us off basically, it was the same shit they’d sent to other students.
Ellis: They were saying stuff about how reducing rent would mean cutting on other things... and about how they’re spending all this extra money on food parcels, which [laughs] I mean, if you’d seen what these food deliveries look like they’re- y’know, they’re not good. They’ve also claimed that it would mean reducing wellbeing services... like, what wellbeing services? It’s just trying to turn students against each other, claiming that things would have to be cut.
Reuben: Coming from someone on an almost £500k benefit package, who heads a university with an endowment of hundreds of millions of pounds... Edinburgh isn’t exactly financially struggling, is it. They could easily afford a rent cut for the students in halls, they’re just choosing not to. To claim that it would be at the expense of other services is ludicrous, and it’s shocking that they would make such an obviously falsifiable argument.
On a more personal note, how have you found settling into Edinburgh?
Ellis: I don’t know, I’ve been feeling very disconnected from everything. As a first year you spend most of your time y’know in the flat so yeah, I’ve not really been able to get involved in many societies. You try a bit at first, but the zoom fatigue kicks in and you just don’t have the energy to keep up with it I suppose. So even though I’m not doing much, I’m just drained by everything. I’ve managed to do a few things with my course friends, like some socially distanced outdoor performance stuff with other art students, and in my halls we’ve got kind of close and are trying to help eachother out as much as we can, but it’s hard. It’s weird because I'm in a block of flats but we don’t see each other, especially since the stricter rules came in so you can’t properly get to know your neighbours at all so yeah. I guess it’s been quite good to have the organising group chats to find people through that.
Would you say that’s been the main way you’ve been able to find a community here?
Reuben: Oh, definitely. The rent strike organising is honestly the avenue through which I’m socialising the most; because everythings online you can’t really participate in a society via zoom, like I know that people are putting a lot of effort into it but it just isn’t the same for first years with no like existing reference points within the Uni. So this campaign has been really good in that respect as well.
And what is your overall impression of UoE?
Ellis: I mean all the warning signs were there, weren’t they? Edinburgh feels like one of those Russell group places where they've got such a prestigious name that they don't need to put the effort into making sure their students are happy. People did try to warn me, but it’s only now that I've come here and experienced, you realise that it's just run by a bunch of rich assholes, really.
And lastly, what’s the future of your campaign looking like?
Ellis: Well, we see the rent strike as a jumping off point to demand immediate relief for the most pressing issues, but after that we’ve been in discussions with some other groups to look at morphing into a student tenants union, something more long term to continue supporting students... but our current demands are definitely the priority for now because they’re what will improve the conditions for first years the most.
Reuben: And of course we’ll be declaring an Edinburgh Soviet Republic.
Ellis: [laughs] Oh yeah, we’re gonna turn George Square into an Autonomous Zone.