In September I went, along with students from 25 universities, to an event by students who had organised a Rent Strike at the University College London last year. There, we learned how to form, organise, and win our own Rent Strike campaigns.
A ‘rent strike’ campaign consists of a certain number of students (at UCL there were almost 1,000) refusing to pay rent for their overpriced, unhealthy, indecent accommodations until their university meets their demands for more accessible housing.
The UCL strike, which lasted five months, saw officials concede over £1 million to student tenants. A £350,000 bursary fund for low-income students was promised for 2016/2017, and £500,000 for 2017/2018. Rent cuts and more concessions brought the total saved to almost £2 million. Not bad for young people who are always seen as apathetic, empty-headed party animals.
We hear regularly of more and more students complaining about rent and living conditions. And they should be complaining. Studies show that accommodation costs have increased by 18% between 2012-13 and 2015-16, and that rents have risen by as much as 10% nationally, just this year alone! According to National Union of Students (NUS) figures, over 50% of students say they can’t afford their basic expenses of rent and other utility bills.
Bath is the 5th least affordable city in the UK: the average room rent went from £438/month to £448 in just one year. That’s a 2% increase; and only 62% of current rooms are available to students because of the enormous intake of students the university planned in 2015 and 2016.
Yet, what we’ve been witnessing alongside the most vicious rent and fee hikes ever, is the most extravagant surplus for universities (+75% to be precise). I won’t even touch on the skyrocketing salaries of senior management (our very own Vice-Chancellor enjoyed a 10% salary increase just in 2015) while staff pay has been dramatically cut and / or casualised, but it’s part of the issue too.
That extra cash universities have gotten from your fees – and second fees, i.e. rents – they’ve used it to build. Invest in new capital. New accommodations, more buildings. Of course they say it’s for your education. But guess who’s going to get even more money out of this when it’s all been built?
Soon, with the new, game-changing Higher Education Law for the privatisation and marketization of our universities, they’ll be able to register themselves as for-profit businesses. If this movement is not stopped, we’re heading for disaster.
And it shows: since 2012, there’s been a massive increase of several alarming things. The first is obviously debt, made worse by cuts to maintenance grants and other financial aid. The second is rent which has risen steeply, as seen before. The third is mental health issues, in direct correlation with debt. In 2015-2016, 70% of students had experienced symptoms of bad mental health, while there’s been severe cuts to mental health facilities, at universities across the country (ah, another result of austerity). The forth is part-time employment for students, which went from around 15% in 2012 to 60% in 2015.
These factors tremendously affect students, during and after their stay at university. It means they have less time and less inclination to enjoy themselves, explore, and fight for better living conditions.
The students most at risk when it comes to high rent (even though many of them can’t get access to university in the first place) are working-class and BME students; women, especially student mums; international students who have a horrible time finding accommodation and are always wary of their precarious visa statuses; LGBT students, much more likely to be homeless and not financially supported by their families; and disabled students.
So here’s where the Rent Strike fits in. Firstly, because, compared to many campaigns led by students since 2010, they won. And they won big. Then, although the activists admitted it was stressful, UCL management was not able to follow through on any threats made during that campaign, which makes it, in their opinion, relatively safe. Thirdly, it doesn’t require as much active effort as, say, an occupation would, to be effective. You simply just don’t pay rent.
From what I’ve seen during this weekend, there’s a real chance of rallying more people around this campaign, and of winning. I’m not the only one: immediately after the weekender, there’s been an increase in ‘Cut the Rent’ groups, who started forming in Sussex, Bristol, Leicester, Cardiff and Manchester Met. In Sussex University, 1,000 students who live on campus have already signed a petition calling for rent caps.
What’s also positive is that, for the first time, the NUS is officially endorsing rent strikes. It’s even pledged legal guidance, support in petitioning university management and a safe account where students can deposit their accommodation fees.
Shelley Asquith, NUS deputy president said: “We demand an end to the exploitative profits from university accommodation. We fully support the actions of rent strikers, and urge universities to urgently engage in negotiations to ensure future rates are set at a level which students can afford to pay”. She added: “When people first hear about rent strikes they think, ‘That sounds a bit scary,’ but where they have happened lots of students who don’t see themselves as political have got involved because they see hundreds of other people in their halls doing it. It’s about strength in numbers”.
I think she’s right. The most important thing I got from this weekend was the realisation that, amidst our precarious financial and mental health problems, we could be there for each other. We could build a new social life, even if it’s just on campus, where we can truly care for one another, especially the most vulnerable ones out there.