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Student occupation of Cantor building continues

As Sheffield universities face mounting pressure to open talks with rent strikers, we talked to the students occupying the building to find out why.

Sheffield Hallam Cantor building student occupation 6

F: “It was terrifying. Because, you know, we were trying to keep the doors closed, security was shouting obscenities at us. After that, security managed to get in, and chased two of us. One of the security guards was at least twice my size, sprinting towards me, so obviously I ran, but then he tackled me and held me down.”

F (name anonymised to protect their identity) is one of several students currently occupying Sheffield Hallam University’s Cantor building. On Thursday 22 April, F and a handful of other students pushed their way into the building as part of a wider protest against universities in Sheffield and across the UK. It's now Wednesday 28 April and they're still there.

The students’ demands of Hallam University are threefold: open a dialogue with the rent strike; threaten to break nomination agreements with halls providers unless they offer a substantial rebate for term two; and take sexual violence seriously.

To understand more, I attended a Students Against Profit rally on Sunday. The rally was attended by a number of local students and teaching union leaders, who gathered outside the Arts Tower, itself occupied by University of Sheffield students.

I learned about how the university and landlords have encouraged students back and are now collecting rent and tuition fees, putting many in tens of thousands of pounds in debt, despite not having had a single day of in-class lecturing. Many students are now taking part in a rent strike in protest.

“I'm on my fourth year. I know what a normal term looks like, and this is not a normal term,” said one speaker.

SHU2

Students occupying Sheffield Hallam University's Cantor building.

Sheffield Hallam University told Now Then that in-person teaching had resumed in March “for students on practical and lab courses, in line with government guidance for universities.”

After the rally, the protestors made their way to the Cantor building, where I snuck in and joined them inside for a few hours. I sat with them and listened to their experiences, their hardships and their reasons for doing this.

A: “The University have been ignoring the rent strike, and so this was a last resort to get their attention.”

M: “We don’t need to be living there [at halls] when everything is online. Also, sexual violence is rampant, and is not taken seriously even when reported. Despite the university’s claims of caring about students’ wellbeing and livelihoods, victims of sexual violence are not taken seriously, and perpetrators are let off the hook and aren’t met with proper consequences.”

The University says it has a “zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and violence,” with its Report and Support system allowing anonymous reporting, and that it is “committed to working with other universities across the sector to ensure that universities are safe places for all.”

Getting into the building had been an ordeal for the students. I was shown pictures of security guards violently forcing students to the ground, all to prevent them gaining access to an unoccupied building.

N: “I was talking to security when the other occupiers tried to barricade the doors. It was terrifying, seeing security shout curse words and bang on the doors, all whilst threatening the students on the other side. I was afraid he might try to assault or restrain me, so I ran to the other side and wasn’t allowed back into the building. Thankfully, I was able to rejoin everyone on Sunday, which is when the protests happened.”

Even after the initial struggle, their experience wasn't easy. The student protestors had been forced to sleep on the floor and drink water from the bathroom.

M: “For the first day we were not given access to a microwave or fridge, which meant we had to eat cold food. Another difficulty was the lights, which made sleeping almost impossible for the first three days. They refused to open up a classroom in which the lights do turn off, leaving us using tables to shield our eyes, and masks as blindfolds, which in turn made us very sleep deprived. Even after being given access to showers, security escorting us one by one makes us feel like prisoners.”

N: “Mainly for me, the biggest difficulty has been that the university are yet to agree to ‘no repercussions’ for us strikers. I’m afraid that once they find out who I am, they might try to remove me from my course, or just generally keep it on my record, which is stupid because as students we should be allowed to protest freely without those fears.”

Despite these hardships, the students plan to continue until their demands have been met. If you want to help, you can bring water, soup and other supplies to the Cantor building on Arundel Street.

A Sheffield Hallam University spokesperson told Now Then on Friday that the University is “committed to continuing dialogue with the rent strike protesters."

"We are also aware of an incident that occurred on Thursday evening at the Cantor building involving a protestor and security officer, and are investigating this.”

Learn more

You can keep up-to-date on Twitter via @SHUrentstrike (for Sheffield Hallam’s Cantor building) and @rentstrikeUoS (for the students occupying the University of Sheffield Arts Tower).

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