Report from Rent Justice Edinburgh and SSSN on Student Halls in COVID-19

On the front lines of ‘student experience’: students in Edinburgh University halls are suffering

A group of students has launched a campaign for ‘rent justice’ because of the dismal conditions they have faced in student halls. Under the banner, ‘Rent Justice Edinburgh’ the students have collected information from more than a hundred of their fellow undergraduates, the vast majority of whom are first years. A few are in Pollock Halls, but most are living in other university or privately-operated halls, and a handful in private rented accommodation.

Students responded to a series of questions, including what had angered or upset them about their study experience at Edinburgh, and how their life in halls has been affected by Covid-19. Their responses are summarized below. These responses convey an overwhelming sense of frustration, anger and social isolation that is deeply concerning, while also indicating that poor management has only served to exacerbate the problems. Why, for example, is it acceptable that in conditions where much teaching is online, students in university halls do not have adequate wifi to connect to their teaching materials? Why has the university’s communication with students about the efforts staff are making to teach as well as they can under the coronavirus restrictions been so poor? 

‘We were lied to’

The majority of the students who responded felt that they had been given false information by the University about what they could expect if they came to study in person this year. Many pointed to the promise of ‘hybrid teaching’ as a key component of that. As one put it in a comment typical of many responses, the University ‘Insisted we move to Edinburgh only for all my lessons to be not just online but all asynchronous. Had I known I’d have stayed home and saved on the rent’. 

Another said what made them angry was that the University: ‘Let us into halls, it’s one of the most immoral and corrupt moves I’ve seen in terms of the covid-19 situation. Contract termination details have been vague, communication terrible in such a stressful time for students and their families. It’s not right to have let us in, keeping us cooped up without a glimpse of a social life, taking hundreds of pounds off us a month when we could be doing the work from home.’

One response pointed out that the choice of staying home was not made clear to students: ‘I thought that when you selected “on campus” or “off campus” – off campus was for people who were unable to make it for uni due to isolation laws in their country etc. If I’d have known we had a choice in the matter- I would never have left home, and I wouldn’t have had to spend £4000 of my own money on a flat I can barely afford with little [or] no social interaction- as two of my flatmates have already moved out, and I’m left with someone who’s rarely even here.’ A similar comment summed up the overwhelming sense of frustration of many responses: ‘Offered virtually no in-person content, no real welfare support or reslife support, being charged £1000 more than my flat mate for 20cm square more space in my room, Wi-fi that can’t support online learning at all.’

Social isolation and lack of support

Feelings of social isolation and loneliness were widely shared. Some students have moved away from support networks at home only to find themselves unexpectedly alone in their accommodation, with little or no interaction in their courses, a situation exacerbated for those who are also self-isolating. In such a context, several said that their mental health was suffering, and criticized the University for providing insufficient mental health support both for students in general, and for those self-isolating. Said one student: ‘We are no longer allowed visitors, so my one friend from home can’t see me and it’s taking a huge toll on our mental health. I’m not even allowed to go out and meet people from my course.’ Another first year student said, ‘[I]ts been difficult to socialise and daunting being here for the first time’. Reflecting on the impact of Covid-19 on living arrangements, a first year said: ‘Obviously there is far less freedom but also it’s been quite lonely. It’s hard to meet anyone, especially with the common room closed and all the rules… Cabin fever is running rampant since nearly everything is online now.’ Another new student said: ‘I spend most [of] my time here, I have limited contact with others which has caused loneliness and anxiety’.

Some students said this sense of isolation had been exacerbated by poor communication, relating to academic matters and to their situation in halls. Several said that while staff on the ground had been helpful, there were not enough staff, and students had not been informed about the prevalence of Covid-19 cases in their accommodation, while communications on what the rules were had not been clear. One first year said: ‘Very little access to testing, few updates directed toward students in terms of Covid cases and mental health services available.’

In some cases, students were not notified that security guards would be patrolling inside and outside their halls. In such a context, some students have been faced with arbitrary enforcement of rules they do not understand by security guards, and reported that fines and warnings were being given out to students based on false reports.

A number of people were upset that students were being blamed for the spread of coronavirus at the university and in the community. One first year said they were angry that the University had: ‘blamed us for the spike in COVID cases when all we wanted to do was have some social interaction and not live like caged animals’. One residence assistant who responded expressed sympathy for such sentiments but was also deeply concerned by behaviour of some students, saying ‘the amount of parties and breaking of official guidelines has been appalling’.

Poor wifi, broken and inadequate facilities, problems with food

In a number of university accommodation blocks, students said they have found it hard to engage in their studies due to poor or non-existent wifi. This has been a problem both in university run halls and flats, as well as privately-operated student accommodation. A student in Murano (run by Unite Students) said that no wifi at all had been provided in their room until a month after they moved in. Another said that they had moved back home, in part because the wifi in their hall was so poor they could not study. Some students report that engineers called out to fix wifi problems told them that the equipment was out of date and so providing an adequate service would be very difficult. Connection problems have been exacerbated by outages of key university platforms such as Learn, mentioned by a number of students.

There have also been reports of essential repairs in student accommodation not being carried out, or requiring repeat calls. Students in halls reported blocked sinks, doors that don’t lock and toilets that don’t flush, and some wrote of inadequate hot water and lack of heating. In one extreme case a student wrote ‘We had to file 7/8 repair requests in the first week as most things in the flat (oven, one toilet, hot water, buzzer, door locks, two heaters etc) were broken. The most pressing of these, the oven and toilet, are still not fixed one month on. Covid is not an excuse for leaving five tenants without working essentials.’ Inadequate laundry facilities have also been a critical problem for self-isolating students, who have been expected to hand-wash clothing in their small rooms, with no plans made by managers for scheduled access to washing machines in their accommodation.

Inadequate and inappropriate food for self-isolating students was also mentioned by several responses. One first year wrote: ‘I’m currently in isolation and food deliveries are being skipped and we’re getting no definite answers regarding what is and isn’t allowed, so we haven’t even been able to do our laundry for over a week’. Several mentioned a lack of vegetables in the food provided, or lack of vegan options. A stoical student who was in a second period of self-isolation wrote: ‘Have been in self isolation ever since I came. Food sometimes comes very late or doesn’t come but good overall’.

Extra costs, unequal provision, complaints about teaching

Many students were angry and upset about aspects of the teaching and learning they were experiencing. The sense of social isolation many students feel has been exacerbated by largely asynchronous teaching in some parts of the university, as well as the related lack of opportunities for students to meet and network with their fellow students. 

The ways that students have been encouraged to think of their education as a commodity was evident in some of the comments. Some spoke of ‘second class education’ ‘inferior experience to previous years’ and ‘not getting a proper teaching experience’. Such a view is summed up in this comment: ‘Charged us full price for watching online videos 90% of the time. A very disconnected uni experience’. A number of students complained about having recordings ‘from last year’.

Such perceptions relate to the fact that university managers generally failed to convey to students what they could expect from their teaching, or the reasons why lectures, in particular, might be recorded. One student wrote: ‘Sent an email that they thoroughly advise us to come to Edinburgh as soon as possible despite me only having one in person contact hour a week that could be done online.’ Another said: ‘Promised us hybrid teaching, I have NOTHING in person. At all.’ A third comment was: ‘The University of Edinburgh claimed to have a hybrid teaching plan in place, yet my course consists of all pre-recorded lectures, no face to face tutorials, and not even any live zoom tutorials. Everything is pre-done and there is no engagement with lecturers whatsoever.’ Lack of face-to-face interaction in tutorials—whether in person or online—was a complaint of many. One arts student said: No uni-led discussion groups or group projects to create networking opportunities or sharing of ideas which usually occurs naturally in a studio setting.’

The perception that online teaching is necessarily ‘inferior’ relates to how managers (including VC Peter Mathieson) have communicated about this with students and the media (most notably in the BBC Scotland Disclosure programme on 19 Oct.). Little effort has been made to explain that online teaching is not intrinsically poor quality, or to explain the efforts staff were making to convert to teaching online. While many responses included comments on the high prices of both accommodation and tuition, and not receiving the ‘service’ or ‘quality’ of both available to students in previous years, a few did reflect on how these rates were in principle too high and unreasonable. 

Some students mentioned having to pay extra costs that normally would be covered in their programme, such as for art materials, or for heating due to being at home all the time. One student complained that some students in their programme were having live tutorials, while others were not, and this appeared to be allocated on an arbitrary basis. Problems with access to studios, and the limitations this creates for their learning, were mentioned by a number of arts students. As one first year put it: ‘I’ve also been asked to buy equipment for my elective courses that would usually be provided in studio spaces, despite promises of hybrid learning/access to ECA buildings. I can’t afford (both financially and space- wise) to build a second studio in my accommodation room!’

About Rent Justice Edinburgh

All responses summarized here were gathered by the group ‘Rent Justice Edinburgh’, a student-led movement which has sprung up in response to the experiences of new and returning students across university halls of residence this year. RJE recently released their demands to the university, which address the main concerns shared by students in their survey, and aim to both compensate students for the reduced standard of their experience this semester, as well as demanding improvements to courses which may be feasible through greater investment by the university, while adhering to Covid-19 guidelines. 

Their demands are as follows:

  1. Half rent for all students in university accommodation for the duration of hybrid learning.
  2. Improved quality of online learning platforms and free WiFi upgrades for all students.
  3. Protection for any student organising or participating in reasonable action against the university.

The group has asked that the University of Edinburgh fulfil their demands by the 24 November, and are prepared to initiate a student rent strike should the university refuse. They feel that this action is justified due to the testimonies of students who replied to their survey, which demonstrate the breadth of discontent in the universities handling of services during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Alongside the survey, students within the Rent Justice Edinburgh group have reached out to various halls of residence, setting up points of contact who communicate news, queries and issues between residents and the organisation. They have a Facebook page and run various social media accounts under the username @rentjusticeedi. They are currently looking for further support for their rent strike, as well as individuals interested in research opportunities for the cause. Join the movement.

SSSN commentary on the RJE survey

Our SSSN analysis last year of the commercial activities of the University of Edinburgh and their revenue can help put these experiences in the context of the neoliberal University. Our research exposed the University (and universities more generally) as a value extraction machine, with fees, rents and lifestyle as its key extractive channels. Whilst student numbers increased by 9.6% between 2016 and 2019, tuition fees income increased by 22.4%, and rent income by 26%. Edinburgh was awarded in 2019 the ‘Commercial University of the Year’ award for ‘maximising revenue from Edinburgh University’s assets’. Such maximisation of revenue has taken place not only through extortionate rents (and a shift toward up-market accommodation through third-party contracts), but also through the minimisation of costs (including through low wage part-time employment for accommodation staff, and through cost savings on repairs and equipment, as the RJE survey reveals). Unfortunately the teaching model is of little import to the University management – what mattered in convincing students to come/return to campus despite the pandemic was, in University business parlance, to keep the campus ‘sticky’, with fees but also rents coming in. Even though Edinburgh has certainly distinguished itself on this commercial trajectory, this is the path taken by all universities in the UK. The SSSN supports the calls for rent justice 100%, but, in our view, there is only one way to put an end to such extractive and exploitative dynamic: proper public funding for a free University of higher learning!

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