Student fearful for future after Uni threatens bailiff action over rent strike
A student says her studies have been thrown into doubt after her university threatened to call in debt collectors over a rent strike. Josefina Nagler Gomez, 19, who is from a low-income family, is taking end-of-year exams under the threat of enforcement action by a third party. The move by the University of Bristol follows more than 1,400 students initially taking part in a rent strike at the end of last year on the grounds that their accommodation lacked services and facilities due to the pandemic. Rent Strike Bristol also argued that in many cases they received little in-person or ‘blended’ learning and could have stayed at home.
The first year’s studies were further disrupted when she caught Covid in November and she has told of having to self-isolate for 10 days in a cramped flat with five others, unable to go outside with only inadequate food box supplies from the university. Josefina said: ‘I’d like to say I was shocked, but with the way the university has acted the whole way through this, putting monetary gain above students’ interests, this doesn’t surprise me. ‘A lot of students are fearful and worried about what will happen and whether this will affect our credit scores and student loans, which could have consequences for the rest of our lives. ‘We expect a duty of care from the university, who should be looking after our wellbeing rather than putting us into situations that leave us worrying about our futures.’ Josefina, from London, who is studying law and wants to specialise in human rights, began her exam modules yesterday while being chased for £5,800 in unpaid rent. In an email sent on May 3, she was given 14 days to pay or make contact with the university, who warned ‘your debt may be passed to our external debt collection agency’ after that date. The university has since said students have until June 10.
‘It’s stressful and I think it will affect how people perform in their exams,’ Josefina said. ‘It’s nagging in the back of your mind all the time and making people feel anxious. ‘A lot of us haven’t done any proper exams since GCSEs because A-levels were cancelled, so we’re getting back into exam prep at the same time as the university is threatening us with bailiffs. ‘The university has pushed the threat back to June after the exams but I’m already on the higher end of what you can receive in student loans and if they do take action I don’t know how I can continue my studies. ‘I don’t want to have to rely on my parents because universities should be about being more financially independent than you would be living at home. ‘I feel like they are stripping me of the independence I gained from leaving home.’ However Josefina, who receives a bursary for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, told Metro.co.uk the protesters feel ‘galvanised’ despite the pressure to pay with the ultimate threat of bailiff action. She has had a £400 rebate due to the rent strike but the protesters want the university to cede more ground, pointing out that the University of Manchester made a 30% cut along with other concessions under similar circumstances. ‘If anything, the university deciding to use such a heavy-handed approach has galvanised the movement again,’ she said. ‘It seems that perhaps due to a recent stalemate after the last rebate the university feels it can once again put unbridled pressure on us.’
The university has offered rebates equivalent to a 25% reduction in rent over the duration of students tenancy and option of a release for those not wanting to say in university accommodation any longer. Robert Kerse, Chief Operating Officer for the university, said: ‘Multiple contacts have been made with students who have not paid, primarily to extend support at this very difficult time. ‘The latest letter tells them that the debt may be passed to a company, as is standard procedure once we have exhausted our own income collection processes, which have been extended by three months this year. ‘We have regularly reminded students what support is available and have encouraged them to get in touch if they’re having any financial difficulties. ‘We have pre-agreed that no debt will be sent to an outside collection organisation until June 10 at the earliest. ‘We have regularly reminded students what support is available and have encouraged them to get in touch if they’re having any financial difficulties. ‘Our hardship funds are uncapped and available to all students, regardless of landlord, during this challenging period. ‘We know that this has been a difficult year for students and their wellbeing remains our top priority. Our mental health and financial services are on hand to support all students – and we continue to urge anyone in need to get in touch as soon as possible.’
A university spokesperson referred to a meeting with Rent Strike Bristol on Friday, after which the group said it would continue the protest. The representative said: ‘During the meeting we reiterated the £16.5million support package that we have extended to students in halls. This includes significant rent rebates, uncapped grants for those in financial difficulty and the option to leave halls without having to pay for the rest of the year. ‘We believe that our package is among the most generous out of more than 100 universities in the UK. As a non-profit organisation with nearly 30,000 students and 8,000 staff, we need to safeguard everyone’s future. ‘We feel that this offer fairly reflects the very challenging year that students have had without causing detriment to our other students and staff.’