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University of Bristol drops threat to dock bursaries of student rent strikers

The Independent logo The Independent 21/11/2020 Zoe Tidman
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The University of Bristol has dropped a threat to dock money from the bursaries of students refusing to pay rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The university had warned its terms and conditions every year stated that bursaries are used to pay any debt owed. 

It came after a group of students went on rent strike, accusing university of “putting the lives of students and staff at risk by bringing students to halls".

One student who is witholding rent told The Independent she felt students on bursaries were being “pressured” in a way others are not. 

Rent Strike Bristol had demanded no financial penalties for students who decide to vacate accomodation during the coronavirus pandemic, and a 30 per cent reduction in rent for those who decide to stay. 

The group shared an email saying outstanding debts to the university and overdue payments would be taken out of student bursaries, a move which it called “shameful”.

Alice Clarke, a second-year on rent strike, told The Independent: “It feels like people are being pressured and penalised in a way that other people who are  striking who aren’t on bursaries won't be because they won’t have financial ramification — or haven't yet.” 

The 21-year-old, who receives a bursary herself, said the email had given the rent strikers "another lease of life" to keep striking. 

She told The Independent she was witholding rent as she felt students had been "misled as to how necessary it was to be here on campus”.

Saranya Thambirajah, another student on rent strike with a bursary, told The Independent:" I'm most frustrated about the fact that it does target people and bursaries, and takes away our right to protest and strike in the same way as everyone else." 

She added: “Other people are still able to withhold their rent and are able to be on rent strike. Whereas if they just take the money out of our bursaries, we can no longer do that.” 

Larissa Kennedy, the National Union for Students (NUS) president, called the move by the University of Bristol a “disgrace”. 

“Do they know how hard students have been hit financially during this pandemic?,” she tweeted. 

An email from the university telling students they had an outstanding balance — which was shared by the rent strike group on social media — said: “If the debt remains outstanding and overdue for payment on 26 November 2020, the University will use some, or all, of the 2 December instalment of your bursary to offset any outstanding amounts.

“Any remaining bursary entitlement will be paid into your nominated account.”

But the university said on Friday night it had dropped the policy.

A spokesperson said: “In light of the current circumstances and following discussion with Bristol Students' Union, we have decided we will not offset any bursary payments made in December against student debt. We apologise for the uncertainty this has caused and can confirm instalments will be paid in full to all bursary recipients on 2 December.”

The university has offered a 10-day rent rebate for students in their accomodation, in response to government guidance advising students to go home during a week in early December for Christmas — a move it said “mirrors” a rebate offered when teaching was moved online during the first lockdown.

The NUS told The Independent students going home earlier than usual due to the government’s Christmas “travel window” should get a rent rebate. 

One student on rent strike told The Independent Bristol’s 10-day rebate was a “step in the right direction” but “nowhere near what we deserve”.

“We're not getting the facilities we were promised, we're not getting the education we were promised, and we're not being cared for, as they said they would,” Ollie Bulbrook added.

The Bristol University spokesperson said it was “costing significantly more” to operate their halls this year, due to measures such as later arrival dates, increased security, and support for self-isolating students - which includes cleaning supplies, laundry services and free food boxes. 

“We do not make a profit from student rent and all accommodation fees are used for operating, maintaining, and improving the residences," the spokesperson said, adding the university has had “regular discussions” with the rent strike group and student union.

Another rent strike movement is demanding concessions from the University of Manchester, where students have occupied a building in protest

The university has vowed to give students a two-week rent rebate, as well as a no-penalty clause should they decide to vacate their accomodation, but the strikers have said this “is not good enough”. 

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