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Why I'm striking against unfair university profits


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The rent strike campaign had humble beginnings for me, as I originally heard about it whilst nervously clutching a towel around myself (I had just got out of the shower when a canvasser knocked on my door). He explained to me that they were judging interest in a rent strike in protest against the condition and price of halls. I signed up immediately, thinking that giving them my email address could hardly do any harm.

The above is quite the contrast to when, a few months later, I found myself (fully-clothed) marching down the streets of London shouting about corrupt university authorities.

I was in the first group of people that withheld their rent in second term, along with the majority of my flatmates. That over one hundred people signed up from the beginning is a testament to how strongly many people felt. We initially joined as a protest against the condition of our halls; broken coat hooks, stained carpets, missing toilet seats, ineffective ovens, useless heating, broken ventilator fans, leaking fridges, and of course, the infamous cockroach problem (“Where are you living?” “Max Rayne.” “Oh, seen a cockroach yet?” is a conversation I’ve had more times than I can count). We were aware of the political implications of the strike, but as freshers still reeling from the initial disappointment of our arrival, the directly personal reasons took precedent.

However, as I’ve attended more demonstrations and meetings, the wider political implications have taken a priority. The main objection is that 60% of accommodation fees goes towards maintenance of halls – but that means 40% is pure profit.

I understand the university needs a profit margin in order to reinvest and improve the halls, but 40% from each student is too high a burden that shouldn’t be the students’ liability. Also, it is clear that this “reinvestment” is going towards vanity projects such as the Stratford campus; the conditions of my halls are testament to the lack of a direct payback. Unless you count installing bird houses and large plant pots as significant improvements…

UCL continually denies these profits, but it is not difficult to believe they exist given the cost of halls have gone up 56% in the last five years, high above inflation. UCL are hiding behind the “London is expensive!” excuse; but UCL is supposed to be an institute of education, not a profit-making landlord. They have made it too expensive to study in London for some – The Tab recently ran an article on a boy who had dreamed of studying at UCL, but had been forced to choose another university because he couldn’t afford halls prices. Even Andrew Grainger, UCL director of estates, admitted “some people just simply cannot afford to study in London and that is just a fact of life.” It stinks of an elitism that leaves people feeling even more bitter about the profit margin.

But the rent strike’s political impact reaches further than just UCL; parallel campaigns have started in other London universities – Goldsmiths, Roehampton and the Courtauld Institute – as well as further afield in Bristol and Oxford. The campaign is making a statement against something that has concerned me for years – the culture of student living.

Whether it’s jokes on the internet or in private conversations, there is an expectation of scraping by if you’re a student. I’m not saying students deserve luxury, but when people are taking cold showers or not eating properly to be able to pay their rent, then this is a deeper issue.

By taking on further full-time education, students are sacrificing their ability to earn enough money to support themselves. We are currently in a dangerously regressive political climate, with rising tuition fees, cutting of maintenance grants, and UCL reducing bursaries for lower-income students by between £500 to £1,000 per year. The last thing we need is the universities themselves exploiting the students with their rent prices.

Accommodation is a necessity, but is priced as a luxury. This elitism goes further than just financial, though, as I discovered when I spoke to one campaigner. She had to have modifications made to her room to accommodate her disabilities. Except these weren’t particularly accommodating, since she’s paying nearly £100 more than me per week to pay for them, and she admitted she was struggling to get the extra financial support. She is paying more, purely because she is disabled. Furthermore, because her disabilities mean she has to stay in university accommodation for the next three years, she has been told she must not strike or they won't allow her to stay; she can’t even protest this unfairness.

This is in line with UCL’s other bullying tactics against the campaign, such as refusing strikers the guarantor scheme (a huge problem for international students, and one that is not in line with their own policy), threatening phone calls and emails, the attempted silencing of a student journalist, and being consistently reluctant to openly negotiate.

So far, then, UCL have shown themselves to be profiteering, elitist bullies.

The rent strike is pushing back against this – hard. Latest figures show over 1,000 students are striking at UCL. That’s a number the university can’t ignore, and is a disaster financially and for their reputation. The longer the campaign has gone on, the more stories of struggling students have emerged, bringing this serious issue into the limelight of not just national, but even international media.

We have a huge demonstration planned for the 18th June open day, which will wreak havoc on their reputation if they continue to refuse negotiations. With this amount of power behind our movement, we are showing that students are not lower members of society to be walked over. We have already had notable success – UCL have frozen rent prices and reduced the contract length so that next year’s students will save 2.5% (although it cannot be ignored that this “saving” will mean students pay less, but also get less). But this is not enough – we want a 40% cut for current students as well as future students.

What is key to remember about the rent strike is that it is not that we don’t want to pay our rent; I have spoken to many strikers who feel extremely uncomfortable with the amount we are withholding from the university. This is why there are plans to pay 60% of our rent, thus paying what we believe our accommodation is worth. We don’t like that we are effectively stealing – but what we don’t like even more is that the university is stealing from us.

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