The University of Bristol has warned money withheld by students during a rent strike will be taken out of bursaries.
One student who is witholding rent told The Independent she felt students on bursaries were being “pressured” in a way others are not.
A university spokesperson said it was in the terms and conditions every year that bursaries are used to pay any debt owed.
The group leading the University of Bristol rent strike said it decided to take action over the university “putting the lives of students and staff at risk by bringing students to halls”.
Rent Strike Bristol have 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.”
A university spokesperson said bursaries are provided to help students cover costs such as rent.
“The terms and conditions of bursaries clearly state that if a student owes the university money then the bursary will be used to pay any debt that is owed,” the spokesperson said. “This is the case every year and applies to all students who have outstanding debt.
“In addition to paying the bursary to students, we have communicated details of our Financial Assistance Fund which is also available for students who are experiencing financial difficulties.”
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.
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”.