A student taking part in a rent strike has spoken of her disgust after her university threatened to cut a bursary intended as a ‘gift’ to help her overcome a disadvantaged background.
Josefina Nagler Gomez has been told that the support from the University of Bristol for the academic year could be withdrawn unless she pays her bill.
The first year, 18, who comes from a low-income household, is among those withholding an estimated £2million in rent in protest at their treatment during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She has since received an email from the university to say that unless she makes the payments, it could withhold some or all of the first instalment of her £2,060 bursary, which is awarded to students as a ‘gift’ that does not have to be repaid.
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The mass action is being taken over accommodation said by students to have lacked services and facilities due to the restrictions or to have been unnecessary because they have received little in-person learning and could have stayed at home.
Josefina had to self-isolate at Unite House for 10 days after catching Covid-19 soon after enrolling for the present term, and says she was stuck in a cramped flat with five others, unable to go outside with only inadequate food box supplies from the university.
She pays £9,250 tuition fees and received the support because she comes from a low-income household.
In the email, the university threatened to take some or all of the law student’s £1,030 first instalment, which is due on December 2.
She said: ‘It feels like a complete slap in the face because they say they give this support to people who need it, but they can take it away whenever they like. Where is the pastoral care?
‘They’re penalising some of the most vulnerable students.’
Josefina, who is from London but of Belgian-Colombian background, plans to continue striking even though she could be left struggling financially. It’s not known how many students are affected but there are at least two others who have received similar emails.
‘The university is doing this to everyone who is striking who has a bursary,’ Josefina said.
‘They are dividing us up into groups who can afford to keep striking and those who can’t. They are using hardship against 18-year-old students, which is a moral line I didn’t think they’d cross.’
More than 1,400 students are involved in the protest over their treatment during the pandemic, according to the Bristol Rent Strike group.
The bursaries are intended for students who have a household income of £42,875 or less but are still paying the full tuition fees.
At the University of Manchester, an occupation of a tower block by around 10 students in another rent strike is now into its eighth day.
Organiser Ben McGowan, speaking from inside Owens Park Tower, said: ‘We are fighting for a rent cut because we feel the university hasn’t fulfilled its side of the bargain in the way it has treated students. We had three more people join us last night and we are going to keep going.’
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: ‘We fully acknowledge how stressful and challenging the current situation is, both for our students and everyone who is being impacted by the pandemic.
‘Bursaries are provided by the university to help students cover expenditure 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.
‘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 is today considering demands from the protesters for a 30% rent cut, no-penalty contract releases and deposit returns for international students.
The spokesperson said: ‘We have had regular discussions with Bristol Cut the Rent and the Students’ Union, during which we have been clear that students must comply with the tenancy agreements they have signed.
‘We have always pledged to act reasonably, reviewing our position as the national picture with Covid-19 changes.
‘Although students are facing some necessary restrictions to safeguard their health and the health of others, we have been as flexible as possible and believe we’ve gone above and beyond to provide support.
‘We are providing a 10-day rent rebate for students living in university accommodation in response to the Government’s directive for teaching to be moved online between 3 and 9 December, allowing time for students to travel home safely should they wish to.
‘This mirrors the rent rebate we offered in the summer term, when teaching was moved online during the first national lockdown.’
The spokesperson added: ‘It is costing significantly more to operate our halls this year, due to later arrival dates, increased security and the additional support offered to students who are self-isolating, who we are providing with 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.
‘This includes 24/7 pastoral and wellbeing support.’
After issuing the comment on Friday morning, the university had shifted its stance by the early evening.
A spokesman 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 December 2.’
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