As Glasgow students take action against mistreatment by university management, resistance must continue to spread, argues Sophie Johnson
Discontent has been brewing amongst the student population since the beginning of term in September. It reached a boiling point last week when thousands gathered to rip down fencing outside the Fallowfield University accommodation in Manchester. University managements across the UK are sorely wrong if they think the mobilisation of students will be an isolated incident. This was a loud and clear warning. An inquiry into the ridiculous efforts to bring students together in the middle of a pandemic is essential.
Covid has highlighted both the negligence and exploitation of the most powerless and underrepresented in society – first workers and now students. The horrific treatment of new students in university accommodation has led to the emergence of new organisations ready to take on the profit-driven institutions that universities have now become. False promises, forced quarantine, lack of mental health support and alarming emails sent to students threatening expulsion at several universities, including Glasgow and Cambridge, have all come at a hefty cost that students just cannot bear.
The University of Glasgow halls of residences, one of the first to be hit by a completely predictable outbreak of the virus, suffered initial food shortages, inaccessible laundry services, next to no mental health support and no real practical guidance. Just a warning that if they were to break rules, ambiguous though these were, there would be serious consequences.
Rent action led to a small but encouraging victory of a month's reimbursement. However, a resurgence of anger at rent prices in even the cheapest Glasgow University halls (which have almost doubled in the last 6 years) has motivated an emergence of one of many new tenants’ unions and a strengthening of the existing ones across the UK.
A Glasgow wide tenants’ union, including four of the city's universities, are already working to take action against unjustifiable rent increases. Rent Strike Manchester are demanding a 40% rent reduction, whilst Glasgow University Student Tenants’ Union (GUSTU) are demanding that rents be capped at one third of student income. They assert that, in the event of no real dialogue between higher management and student representatives, they will "mobilise and support students living in University-provided accommodation to take action against the university."
Students in Aberdeen, Bristol and elsewhere have also made similar demands to their universities, with Manchester students in particular succeeding in withholding rent for the first university term and the Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell conceding that no action would be taken against them. Student mobilisation has never been so important and encouraging in recent times.
Student and staff solidarity is another force management will have to reckon with. Staff have long been aware that universities have become closer to independent corporations than research and educational institutions. In the context of Covid, students are becoming more conscious that they are viewed as consumer pawns in a system designed to facilitate profiteering for wealthy senior management.
The UCU and NUS are working together for the safety of both staff and students. Past student support for striking lecturers, and demands from student organisations to prioritise the safety of staff, indicate a strengthened solidarity and joint fight against injustice in Universities.
According to an inside university source, "Glasgow University was founded in 1451 and it's fair to say it intends to cling on to its medieval roots." There seems to be a vacuum of responsibility which makes it difficult to communicate with senior management. This is why students from GUSTU erected fences around Principal Anton Muscatelli's official university residence as an act of solidarity with Manchester. They also delivered an open letter attached to his door in an angry, and now desperate, attempt to force dialogue between management and students.
It's fair to assume that, after Manchester's fast mobilisation, that much more direct action is to come across the UK. Rent strikes, demonstrations and even more occupations are on the horizon. We offer our solidarity to the Manchester occupation. Let them be a warning.