by Sophie Watson – UCL Department of Latin and Greek
….And we will do it again!
Earlier this week UCL forked out £100k in compensation to residents of Campbell House West following 7 months of protest, strike action, and hard graft.
Full compensation to all 87 former residents of Campbell house West. Each resident is to receive up to £1368 in compensation following the dispute over unbearable living conditions and vermin infestations. UCL repeatedly responded with neglect, delay, and breach of contract.
The rent strike started on 8 May and during that time 17 complaint forms were submitted by to management. The strike was accompanied by more protests and direct actions. By the 10 October, there was still no outcome.
In addition to vermin infestations in the basement, the demolition works happening opposite the halls literally shook mirrors and tables. Unbearable noise forced many students to return home to revise, incurring huge travel costs, instead of being able to use their falsely marketed “study bedrooms.”
UCL did not only respond with senseless bureaucracy and lazy treatment, but also with illegal threats of academic sanctions and expulsion over withholding rent. This, of course, was totally illegal, and nothing but scare tactics.
Commenting on UCL’s response, Pascal LeTendre-Hanns (UCL Union Officer) said that: “The important thing is how much of an upward struggle it’s been for the residents and those supporting the campaign. UCL management have delayed, obfuscated and denied responsibility at every stage; that’s why this full compensation is such a huge vindication of the cause”.
Angus O’Brien (UCLU Halls Representative) who spoke at the complaints panel puts the victory into context: “this does not constitute the end of the campaign – due to wider concerns about sharply increasing rents, the 45% surplus made by UCL on running halls, totalling £15,779,000 profit this year, and diminishing standards, this this example will only prove to disenchanted students that disruptive protest works.”
For “UCL, Cut The Rent”, this is only the start. We’re now looking to get wider to get results for inhabitants of other halls, where UCL fails to adequately maintain facilities and justify their supernormal profit. Many students I have spoken to are hit hard in an attempt to make ends meet. Maintenance loans and grants almost never cover it, let alone allow some sort of weekly budget.
By celebrating the success of the Campbell House West Dispute, we demonstrate and maintain that students do not have to be exploited. UCL Management has been beaten, and can be beaten again. Wider action is on the cards with a larger and more empowered group of students from other halls, including a housing bloc at the 4th November student demo!
You can join the next meeting of the Cut The Rent campaign on Wednesday in the Ramsay Hall common room! Everybody is welcome and the BBC will be there to film the event (Full details here!)
Support the campaign on twitter and Facebook! Find out more, get involved and together we’ll stop monetisation of student accommodation.
This is the first of a series of ‘myth-busting’ articles about UCL’s polices that will seek to provide students with arguments to debunk management opposition to cutting the rent in student accommodation. Ok, let’s deal with the big myth first, head on:
In a letter to the Cut The Rent Campaign in March 2015, Vice Provost Rex Knight claimed that students in UCL accommodation ‘need to generate a contribution.’ By this he meant that that the annual income from our rents needs to be higher than the running costs of the halls. Furthermore, he argues, the surplus needs to increase every year. He wants the surplus to rise from just below £10m to £15m between 2014 and 2016 alone. This is a rise from a surplus of around £5m in 2009 (see graph). In 2014 UCL’s total income from rent was £31m and in 2016 it’s expected to be £34m. In other words, we can expect that between 2014 and 2016 32-44% of our rent won’t pay for the running costs of halls but for capital investment.
The claim that this money has to come out of students’ pockets is a myth.
Investment to improve the standards of halls is solely needed. However, the problem is that the money for these future redevelopments has been taken from students by raising rents at a rate far higher than inflation. Not only will students never see the benefits of the surplus we are generating but we are also paying more, proportionately and in real terms, every year. As a result, a huge number of rooms at UCL are now completely unaffordable.
Does UCL have other option than to exploit students in this way? Of course they do.
UCL has a lot of money. Over the next few year management want to increase the university’s overall surplus from 2.5 to 5.5% – sending an additional £47m going into the coffers every year. This is so that UCL can fulfil huge investments in new campus buildings. Between now and 2025 the bosses are planning to invest over £1bn in new facilities in Bloomsbury and Stratford. In principle there’s nothing wrong with these investments – because management decided to drastically increase student numbers we need more space. But it proves that for management raising the rent for students is not a must, it’s a matter of priorities. UCL could reduce the rate of its billion pound investments by 0.01% and afford to cut our rent by 40% if they wanted to. They chose not to, and no students were involved in making this decision.
To give another example of how management priorities to use our resources: In 2013 there were 377 members of the upper echelons of UCL staff and management who with salaries ranging between £100,000 and £320,000 per year, according to the university’s 2014 annual financial statement. At the time, 377 people represented slightly less than 4% of the entire UCL staff body. Roughly, they all received between 6 and 18 times more money than a university cleaner in a year. The combined cost to UCL for paying salaries to these 377 people was at least £51,640,000.*
A year later, the number of top staff and bosses earning over £100,000 had increased to 429, and top incomes rose to £350,000. All-in-all, the cost of paying these salaries went up by at least £7.5m, to at least £59,150,000. During the same period, rents for students went up by around 5%. Students became more exploited at the same time as those earning above £100,000 were paid more.
Compare these sums to the income and the surplus generated from students’ rent. Between 2014 and 2015 the UCL predicted an increase in the income from student accommodation by about £2m, from £31m to £33m. This meant yet another above-inflation rent increase for students. However, what these statistics demonstrate is that if UCL had frozen (not cut) the money they put into management pay in 2013, they could have instantly slashed rents by 24%, rather than increase them the following year.
The point here is not to say that there is a dichotomy between estates investment and student rents, or between management pay and student rents. Rather, it is to point out that the UCL has the money to cut rents for students if they wanted to, were they to rebalance their budgets. Student accommodation does not necessarily have to generate a surplus in order for UCL to keep improving standards in halls – it’s a matter of priorities. What we can conclude is that UCL is currently prioritising higher rents for students and higher pay for managers and that no students were involved in setting out these priorities.
Now the field is open to agree or disagree with these priorities.
You can get involved in the ‘UCL, Cut the Rent’ Campaign at the next planning meeting on Wednesday. Full details here.
* The statistics available do not reveal the exact amount every top staff member was paid, only the income brackets and the amount of people on salaries within these brackets. Therefore all calculations are conservative, estimating that all high-earners in one bracket receive the lowest salary in that bracket. All of the 68 people who earned between £100,000 and £110,000 in 2013 are assumed to have been paid £100,000. This is why all totals are labelled ‘at least.’
If you’re reading this, the chances are that you either live in UCL halls or have done so recently. It is likely, then, that you know just how expensive it is – this year, the average cost per week of a room in UCL accommodation is £176, which is £7031.59 for the full year. This year, the very cheapest single room is £135.59 per week, coming to well over half the
entire loan available to students – if you are eligible for the full amount.
Yet six years ago, the picture was almost entirely different. In this time, rent has increased by an average of almost 56% – students are paying an average of £2484.94 more per year, and the cheapest room at UCL has increased by more than £40 weekly, from £94.01 per week.
So, are these rapid, high rent increases justified? The short answer is no – inflation has caused prices to rise by 19.8%
since 2009, and student income has only increased by 12% to 16%, depending on income bands.
Alongside this, UCL will be running a surplus of £15,779,000 from accommodation during this academic year, enough to fund a rent cut of almost 45% without affecting the running of halls.
We as students of UCL have decided that enough is enough – UCL cannot continue to raise the rent in halls as it wishes, ignoring the rapidly decreasing level of affordability. Living in halls now is almost impossible without financial assistance on top of your student loan and maintenance grant (including the UCL bursary!).
UCL cannot pretend to offer equal opportunities to students from all sections of society when the sky-high cost of living constitutes an unofficial entry requirement based on your financial position.
Asking nicely won’t make UCL accommodation affordable – your help is required to run the campaign to hold UCL to account.
The best way to meet others at UCL who are passionate and committed to making halls affordable is to go to the year’s first open meeting of the ‘UCL, Cut the Rent’ Campaign. The meeting will be on Wednesday 7 October at UCL and will give you lots of info and advice on what we can do together to force UCL to end their exploitative ways. Find all the details here: www.facebook.com/events/964826676907267/ (There will even be free food and drinks!)
2. Take part in your local Halls Assembly
Halls Assemblies are meetings at your hall where residents get together to decide for themselves how they would like their halls to be run. This is real democracy in practice – students making decisions for themselves about what changes they’d like see. This is an opportunity to unite with others in your hall around common issues and agree on how to improve anything from cockroaches to the lack of halls parties. Halls Assemblies can also be for making decisions about collective action such as writing letters to management and protesting poor maintenance and high rent. Many of the rules and conditions that UCL enforces are unfair – Halls Assemblies are where you and everybody else in your halls decide what to do about them.
Keep an eye out for your first local assembly. Anybody can call an assembly, so if you can’t find one scheduled for your halls you can establish one! Contact your Union Halls Officers to find out more details or help to organise a meeting.
3. Become a Halls Representative or join your halls committee Halls Election
Each hall at UCL should have a union halls rep and a residents’ committee. These are students who are elected to raise issues with UCL management, stay up to date with problems around your site and take on organising work for actions meeting, events and parties. Being a representative in the students union or on a committee is an important and rewarding job and a great way to meet and speak to others at your halls, find out what their problems are and meet with the bosses to demand that they get solved. UCL also gives a budget to halls that have a residents’ committee (£5 per resident, or between £1,000 to £4,500 per hall) – this money can be used for social events, parties, equipment for the common room or anything else residents decide. Union reps can also get the opportunity to bring issues faced by their constituents to meetings with other union officers, union general assemblies or meetings with UCL management. If you’re proactive and like getting involved and solving problems and issues for fairer halls, you should stand for election!
If you experience things in your flat that you think should be improved (Lower rent, no pests, better kitchens, or anything else), don’t keep it to yourself! Chances are that others in your flat, your block or your halls will be experiencing the same problem. Don’t feel that you’re not entitled to make complaints to UCL management or demand better. Talk to other people in your flats and in your halls, follow what’s going on on your halls facebook page or ask others if they’ve had the same problems. Find out what issues are around and decide how you’d like to see it fixed. Nobody likes pests! Is your fridge too small? Would you like to spend less money on rent? – Don’t accept poor conditions, and if you stand up for your flatmates’ problems you can count on them standing up for you.
5. Send your demands to UCL
Make sure to let UCL know what you want. Also make sure that you’re not alone in proposing improvements; remember – unity is strength. The more people who’re demanding change the more likely it is that management will be forced to take you seriously. UCL are experts at ignoring individual complaints and often dismiss students who write to them with. But when we get together me can make them listen – it’s thanks to collective strength and bargaining power that the ‘Cut the Rent’ Campaign has been able to win concessions in the past. Remember that you can always turn individual issues into collective disputes. If one of your flatmates has a broken window, you can speak up on their behalf and vice versa. Set up petitions and collect names of everybody who wants to see better conditions and lower rent.
Know who to contact at UCL and report service failures (report issues here) as soon as possible. If you don’t get a satisfactory response from your local site managers, write to their bosses. Don’t hesitate to send complaints or petitions to the Director of Student Accommodation (email@example.com) or the Head of Property (firstname.lastname@example.org). Always contact your Union Halls Officers for advice and assistance.
6. Get your flatmates involved!
The more people are involved in the campaign for lower rent the more likely we are to succeed! Talk to your flatmates and others in your halls. Get them to come down to the next campaign meeting or Halls Assembly, and take part in a protest action. It’s our right to have decent and affordable homes – in a city beset by a housing crisis that’s hitting not only students, this is something that concerns everybody! Lower rent at UCL will help break the power of the landlords across London, but it will only happen if we get out mates to get on board too. Remember that this is a struggle we can win if we stand together.
And how we are turning the tide on rent and student housing:
Since the student campaign to cut the rent (Check our facebook page) was launched at a halls assembly in Max Rayne House in Camden last year we’ve given management a proper shake-up and forced them to reconsider their endless rent increases for the first time. As the new term begins we’re already in action continue pushing for a rent cut across the board in UCL accommodation and for a democratic university in which students and staff have a say over how halls are run and rents are set. (Join our first campaign meeting here!)
Whilst the main focus is a university-wide rent cut, it is important not to overlook the small victories that the campaign has won. So here are just a few things we have achieved over the past year that have improved conditions for UCL students in halls.
1. Compensation for over 200 residents at Hawkridge House
Organising protest actions at Hawkridge House meant that students who had been ignored by management for months over terrible living conditions caused by construction work and pests ensured that over 200 people there won a £132 compensation payment from UCL. Management didn’t give it freely, though. First we needed to assemble a large number of complaint letters after which residents threatened to not pay their rent if there weren’t given a fair deal. But thanks to our efforts, it worked!
2. Better Furniture for the Common Rooms at Max Rayne House and Ifor Evans Hall
This was the first win of the campaign and it came after we exposed the state of UCL’s most run-down halls. It may not sound as big as hundreds of pounds of compensation, but it did have a significant impact on the common room – and it was a vast improvement on the way things were before we demanded better conditions. The new couches and pool table meant that people actually wanted to hang out in the common room and improved the social dynamic of the entire hall. Again, this was not something that management wanted to give to us by themselves. We had to demand it!
For much of the beginning of last year, there were no accessible toilets by the basement common room at Ramsay Hall. As Ramsay is a popular party hall, this meant that wheelchair-users were not able to visit or join parties and use the toilet without a very undignified process of leaving to use one much further away that was accessible. Following our demands for improvement, there are now two accessible toilets by the common room.
4. Exposing and Overturning UCL Management’s Illegal Use of Academic Sanctions
During the dispute at Hawkridge House and Campbell House UCL threatened students, who were withholding rent payments in protest over the state of their halls, by saying that they would not be allowed to re-enrol on their courses. Threats and sanctions like these were deemed illegal by the Office of Fair Trading in 2014. It turned out that UCL were still using these threats against all students who were unable to pay for their accommodation in time. Our campaign forced management to backtrack on their threats and to stop using such illegal actions against students rather then negotiate with us.
5. Forcing the Provost to Accept that More Funding is Needed to Improve Halls
At the final meeting of the year between UCL Provost Michael Arthur and the UCLU Sabbatical Officers it was revealed that he would invest more funding into improving halls. After a year’s campaigning this meant that the top levels of management are finally beginning to shift under out pressure. Obviously, the Provost’s words doesn’t mean much. We shouldn’t celebrate until we see the funding go into improvements for students. UCL is infamous for not keeping it’s pledges in the past, to pay the London Living Wage to all it’s staff, for instance (spoiler – it still doesn’t!). If anything, this means that we need to keep up our pressure more then ever to make sure that, a: UCL live up to this pledge, b: they don’t make students pay more for the improved conditions, and c: they cut the rent!
We’re looking forward to winning more improvements at UCL over the next year. Our campaign is completely student-run and everybody is welcome to join in and help us make sure that rents at UCL become affordable (as long as they aren’t bosses). If you’d like to be part of the action for a better and fairer UCL, don’t miss the first campaign meeting of the term on 7 October! (Event page here) See you there!
Earlier this year UCLU published statistics that revealed the true extent of the cost of living in UCL halls in proportion to student incomes. But how much have rent levels and student incomes changed over the past few years? A quick historical comparison reveals exactly how much rents and student incomes have changed since before the tuition fee increase was declared in 2010.
A Note on Statistics
All rents cited are based on statistics from UCL. The average rates for 2009 do not include halls that are no longer in operation in 2015. The dataset does also not include rates for halls recently acquired through the UCL-Institute of Education merger. The cost of living statistics cited are based on the UCLU research and have been updated to include rents from 2015-16. In 2009, undergraduate rooms were let for 37 weeks whereas in 2015 contracts last 40 weeks. Average cost increase calculations are based on the full academic year as there is no option for a shorter contract.
Since 2009, the average cost for a single room at UCL has increased by almost 55%, or £2484.94 for the academic year. This means that the average room, which six years ago cost £4546.68 (£123 per week), now costs £7031.62 (£176pw). This is very slightly above the cost of a median-priced room, which stands at £6983.20 (£174.58pw) – a 56% increase from 2009.
The most dramatic increase, proportionately and in real terms, has been in Astor College, where rent has gone up by 96% from £106.19pw to £192.50pw – £7700 spread across an academic year. Although this includes added costs for catered dinners it means that Astor College is now one of the most expensive halls at UCL. Most commonly, rooms which cost around £120pw in 2009, now cost £174.58, or £6983.20 for 40 weeks.
Rent in the most expensive halls has increased less proportionately, but matches the average increase in real terms. Frances Gardner House, for instance, has risen from £5677 (£153pw) to £8103 (£203pw), or 43%, for the academic year. The two least expensive halls have risen slightly less in real terms (by £1945, to £5432.60), but match the average percentage increase.
Additionally, since 2009 UCL has discontinued its very cheapest and genuinely affordable rooms. These rooms have been replaced by several rooms offered in halls that fall within the most expensive range of UCL accommodation. In 2009 it was possible to rent a room at Clifford Pugh House in NW3 for £88.62pw. Rooms at UCL-run Holmbury St Mary in Dorking could be rented for half this price. In 2015 these rooms are no longer on offer and have been replaced by rooms at Woodland House in N7 and St Pancras Way in NW1 for a rent of £197.98 and £213.15pw respectively.
The most expensive rooms at UCL can now be found at Prankerd House, where the rent for a single room is £8710.80 (£218pw) for an academic year, almost as much as tuition fees.
The increase in student incomes from maintenance loans and grants during this period has been between 12 and 16% depending on students’ means-tested funding. In real terms, a student in London who in 2009 would have received £6928 for an academic year now receives £7788, in loans and grants – a real-terms increase of £860 for a year. As a result, the proportion of students’ income taken up by the average and the median rent at UCL has risen from about 53% to 72% for students from households earning less than £25,000 per year – an increase of 35%. For those from households earning more than £45,000 per year this change has been from 65% to 90% of their student income. This does not include further costs of living such as food and clothes.
At UCL the student bursary has been frozen for the past few years at £2000 and £1000 per year for students middle and low income households respectively.
In comparison, the increasing cost of commodities according to the Consumer Prices Index has since been 19.8 percent. In other words, Student rents have increased at a rate more than double that of inflation while grants and loans are now worth less compared to average commodities.
Living Costs Surpassing Income
Comparing the cost of living at UCL to grants and loans reveals that a considerable amount of rooms are unaffordable in the sense that no student could afford to rent them were they to live off their current rates of student income. This including the UCL bursary, specially intended to cover living costs. An overwhelming majority of rooms leave students from households earning more than £30,000 per year on a weekly budget of less than £30 once rent and other essential costs have been paid (not including travel costs).
At St Pancras Way a student from a household earning between £25,000 and £30,000 now has to pay more of the cost of rent and other essential living costs than their combined income from grants, loans and the UCL bursary. The same goes for four other UCL halls.For students from households earning between £40,000 and £45,000 per year, 19 out of 22 halls are unaffordable in the sense that their student income will not be able to cover rent and basic living costs. For students from households earning between £35,000 and £40,000 the corresponding number is 14 out of 22. The median income for a household with one child and two adults is £36,600. The median income for a household with two children and two adults is £44,200.
Local Market Rates
Compared to the local median rent in the London Boroughs of Camden and Islington, where a large number of UCL rooms are located, UCL rents are considerably higher than market rates. Median market rate rents in these boroughs are £152 and £143pw respectively, which places UCL’s median rent of £174 in the top quartile.
From the perspective of what is considered ‘affordable rents’ (80 percent of market rates), only UCL’s very cheapest rooms qualify as ‘affordable’ compared to the median rent in the WC1 postcode area, and all rooms fail to qualify if compared to the median rent of Camden Borough. All UCL rents fail to qualify as ‘living rents’ (defined as not exceeding 35 percent of tenants’ income).
Between 2009 and 2015 the surplus made by UCL from students rent, in other words the difference between the income received from accommodation and the running costs, increased from £5,300,000 to £12,285,000. It is also worth noting that this figure continues to climb sharply, as the surplus will run at £15,779,000 for the 2015/16 academic year. This represents an increase of almost 200%.
Over the course of the past 6 years rents at UCL have increased at a rate that outpaces corresponding increases in student income both proportionately and in real terms. Furthermore, as a result, students across the board, now pay a greater proportion of their income directly towards rent than ever before. Once other basic living expenses have been considered only a small minority of rooms at UCL allow most students to spend more than £30 per week towards other costs while a substantial proportion of rooms do not leave students with any money left of their income whatsoever. UCL has also removed its most affordable rooms and acquired new rooms at the most expensive end of the scale while at the same time the College makes greater surplus off student housing than ever before.