Why the campaigns for lower rent in university accommodation must be part of a wider movement for free education – a response to Pi

By Angus O’Brien

In a recent Pi article, it was argued that sabbatical officers at UCLU should fight on behalf of the ‘UCL, cut the rent’ campaign, rather than pursuing ‘pet projects’ such as the campaign for free education. In doing so, Pi ignores some basic elements of the cut the rent campaign that has developed at UCL and understates the importance of the campaign, and similar ones, in the national movement for free education.

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Not a sabbatical officer in sight…

Firstly, it should be noted that Pi criticises some of the sabbatical officers who have been most prominent in the national organisation of the free education movement (including the march for free education in November last year), even though they have not been the only ones who have been involved in the creation of the campaign and the organisation of all of its actions to date. These officers are part of UCL Defend Education, a group on campus that, alongside fighting for better conditions for students (through the setting up of the cut the rent campaign, for example) has been centrally involved in the national campaign for free education. Secondly, perhaps to state the obvious, the majority of the organisation and running of the campaign has been done by students who, at most, are part-time officers in the union, with the majority holding no particular union role. Whilst Pi may contend that this is a problem, that the sabbatical officers should be the ones doing this instead, this would be to completely misunderstand how a campaign should be run. Instead of focusing on sabbatical officers who are not pulling their weight, the focus should be on the wider student population. It is likely that the majority of students at UCL have, either past or present, lived in student halls and have first-hand experience of quite how unaffordable it is. They should also recognise the consequences of year-on-year rent increases – that UCL increasingly becomes the preserve simply of those who can afford to live there, that entire sections of society are priced out of education. Maybe, instead of spending half the article, after a half-hearted attempt to fulfil what is expressed in the title, criticising sabbatical officers for their lack of involvement, the focus should have been on the importance of the campaign for the future of the university and why all members of the UCL population should be getting involved.

Look at this terrible student pretending to be a sabbatical officer
Look at this terrible student pretending to be a sabbatical officer

Finally, the reason the same students and sabbatical officers that have been involved in fighting for free education as well as the ‘UCL, cut the rent’ campaign is that the two are necessarily intertwined. Pi quite rightly states ‘you can’t have free education without affordable accommodation’, but does not recognise that the fight for each is the same fight. Both of these elements work in tandem to further increase the inaccessibility of education – £9,000 tuition fees put off those unwilling to take on an enormous burden of debt, whilst rocketing accommodation fees result in a situation in which many cannot afford the day-to-day living cost of going to university and for those who do, they are further burdened by the extra thousands of pounds going towards their accommodation.

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How bad does the affordable accommodation banner looks on the march for free education in Birmingham!

Pi’s belief that the campaign for lower accommodation fees is separate from fighting for free education reflects an essentially incorrect view of how any political campaign is won. Free education will not be won by the NUS; it will be won through organisation on a campus behind a national movement and local campaigns for more affordable and accessible universities, such as the ‘UCL, cut the rent’ campaign, both led by students and sabbatical officers.

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UCL Students Threaten Rent Strike at Hawkridge House: Press Release

UCLU have put out a press release about the situation at Hawkridge House. Here is the full text and pictures from the site.

Solidarity with students at Hawkridge in their struggle for respect and dignity from UCL!

Full text here:

UCL STUDENTS THREATEN RENT STRIKE IN FACE OF ACCOMMODATION CHAOS AND COLLEGE DISREGARD

PHONE: 07459035236

As exams approach, over 230 students at UCL’s Hawkridge House in Chalk Farm are determined to force their College to end disruptive constructions works and pay compensation by withholding rent. More than half of all residents have already written to UCL demanding a refund and the students’ union is pushing management to fully comply with students’ requirements as patience runs low.

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Since February, residents at Hawkridge, predominately overseas postgraduate students, have seen their homes transformed into a construction site as UCL – who charge £132.20 per week for a single room – erected scaffolding on all sides of their 14-story tower block . Early morning drilling, dusty rooms and a lack of sunlight and privacy have since been the norm, causing stress and health issues and leaving students unable to revise in their rooms.

When rooms were advertised last summer there was no mention of scaffolding or construction and when residents moved in in September where were told that works would be over by January. In their last communication to students, UCL have stated that works could continue until 26 April.

The only notice given of planned works before students moved in. A promise broken three months ago.
The only notice given of planned works before students moved in. A promise broken three months ago.

It was only after formal meeting between UCL managers and UCL Union representatives on 27 March that any mitigating measures were taken by the College. However, the management concession to place more desks in the silent study are on site was deemed inadequate by residents and the Union, who are maintaining their demands for an immediate halt to construction works and full compensation for the College’s breech of their contract.

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Belen Desmaison, a postgraduate student from Peru is asthmatic and has suffered because of dust from constructions and was struck by migraines as a result of not being able to open her window. She said that, “the fact that I have to close my curtains so that construction workers don’t see me sleeping or changing my clothes does not only mean that my view is ruined but that I now live without natural light from Monday to Friday.” She also described drilling noises as “unbearable”.

David Dahlborn, the elected Halls Accommodation Representative at UCL Union said: “Students at Hawkridge have been completely neglected by general management. It makes me furious that once again UCL have put their profit interests above the needs of students, potentially ruining the degrees of many people who have come here to study by falsely marketing rooms which are not fit for habitation. It’s time residents here were taken seriously rather than exploited and side-lined.”

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UCL Union is now advising residents to withhold rent payments until there are reliable assurances from UCL that compensation will be paid and that construction will end until the end of exams.

For the past five years, UCL has increased the rent in their accommodation by up to 5% per year. A room at Hawkridge House cost £127 in 2013/14, when there was no construction work. Recently, there have been protests by UCL students against planned rent increases, including a flash occupation of the Provost’s balcony.

The Union has handed out information about students' rights in English and Mandarin Chinese.
The Union has handed out information about students’ rights in English and Mandarin Chinese.

Students stage mass camp out in the UCL quad to protest the rent hike

On Thursday 19th March, students at university College London (UCL) pitched their tents for a “Cut the Rent Camp Out” in protest of increasing rent costs for student accommodation. 

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For the past five years, rent prices at UCL have steadily increased by around 5 percent each year (1), significantly more than the rate of inflation.  For a single room with a shared bathroom, students can expect to pay between £132.30–203.70 per week (2), which are the highest rents in the whole of the UK (3). UCL is the joint (with Imperial) most expensive university to attend in the whole of the country (4).grouprent

A-Level student Alex Samiotakis explained that he had been put off coming to study at the university because of the increasing unaffordability of London: “Unless you can get your parents to help pay, UCL is unaffordable for students. Even though it would without question be my first choice for my course, the cost of studying there means that I may have to consider going to a different, cheaper university.”

David Dahlborn, who created the UCL Cut the Rent campaign last year, agreed: “UCL needs to start taking responsibility by ensuring that all its accommodation is affordable for students and of a decent standard. By charging almost as much for rent as for tuition fees, UCL is telling us “don’t apply here if you can’t afford it”, and this is turning prospective students away from London. “

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As well as high rent costs, there have been reports that many of the halls are in a state of disrepair or next to construction sites; not only does UCL accommodation offer poor value, students are also failing to see how the money that UCL makes is being reinvested into their accommodation (5).

UCL management is refusing to stop rent increases or compensate those who have experienced problems in halls (6), and have ignored concerns raised by the student union. Therefore, students now plan to escalate their campaign to pressure UCL into taking action on the issue, starting by pitching their tents today and also, targeting undergraduate open days in July and September.

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(1) http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/15/students-demand-end-to-rents-that-swallow-up-95-of-their-loans

(2) UCL-rent-2009-10

(3) UCL-rent-2014-15

(4) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/household-bills/11033327/The-cheapest-and-most-expensive-universities-for-living-costs.html

(5/6) http://london.tab.co.uk/2014/11/17/disgraceful-halls-bosses-wont-provide-compensation-days-without-warm-water/ https://www.facebook.com/davidhallsrep/posts/421877181319884 http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/ucl-halls-appalling-conditions-rent-expensive-london-accommodation-9850286.html

Stop UCL’s Rent Hike!

Free education is about more than just cutting tuition fees. The cost of rent is currently on of the largest barriers for prospective students, particularly in London, and even for those of us who pay to live in London the price will be a debt that will chain us for most of our adult lives. UCL Accommodation have now made it clear that they will be making the situation worse for many students here by pushing on with their planned rent increases and refusing to even ask UCL for an expanded budget for student accommodation

But this week we are fighting back!

There will be a meeting to plan and organise a united campaign to force UCL management to change their priorities and stop their relentless exploitation of students in halls. This is the first time for many years (if ever) that a similar campaign against the callous landlords of UCL has been undertaken on campus, and it might be the moment when the tables turn in favour of students’ interests and not the bosses’ surreptitious plans.

Join in what might become a historic campaign! Find all the details for the meeting here.

Affordable Accommodation, Accessible Education - A banner from the UCL Camden RENTS Campaign.
Affordable Accommodation, Accessible Education – A banner from the UCL Camden RENTS Campaign.

Free Education!
No rent exploitation!

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Rent Strikes – Past and Future

“When they say ‘rent hike’, we say ‘rent strike’!”

We don’t have to settle for these extortionate rents and terrible living conditions. At UCL halls in Camden, residents with elected reps are organising together and putting pressure on the managers to fulfil their demands. Get in touch with us to join that campaign or for help starting one in another hall.

A banner for the UCL Camden RENTS Campaign
A banner for the UCL Camden RENTS Campaign

Sadly it’s not always enough to ask nicely. UCL managers have an interest in keeping rents high and costs low. Our campaigns have to take action to force improvements.In the past, one powerful tactic has been the rent strike. Residents
collectively agree not to pay rent until an acceptable deal is reached. At Sussex University throughout 70s and 80s student rent strikes reduced rent rises and stopped low quality halls being built. 4 years ago, an Oxford college struck over fire safety.

We hope UCL managers voluntarily improve standards and cut rents. But if we have to fight, we will!

An item on one of the rent strikes at Sussex Uni, from the uni newspaper 'The Bulletin' January 1973.
An item on one of the rent strikes at Sussex Uni, from the uni newspaper ‘The Bulletin’ January 1973.

UCL Halls are Too Damn Expensive

For most, living in halls isn’t exactly luxurious but we put up with it. Most students experience any number of ‘horror stories’ during their time in student accommodation. Certainly, after only a couple of months at UCL, the newest batch of freshers already have enough to last them a year.

Max Rayne House at UCL
Max Rayne House at UCL, A.K.A, “Max Payne House”

Cockroaches!

If you live in Max Rayne you will now likely be intimately familiar with the cockroaches. Students are finding them across the building; in their kitchens and even in their bedrooms. Does Max Rayne somehow attract unhygienic students or are UCL ignoring what must be an infestation?

UCL's accommodation slogan. The "affordable" bit is, essentially, a lie.
UCL’s accommodation slogan. The “affordable” bit is, essentially, a lie.

Fire!

For other unlucky students, attempting to cook for the first time after arriving ended with the arrival of two fire engines. Understandable, perhaps, if they had burnt their cooking, but not so much when all they did was turn on the ovens. Within minutes the kitchen was filled with smoke due to the incredibly poor condition of these ovens. There are plenty of other stories, too. From toilets being out of use for the first two weeks upon arrival, to a windowsill that is held together with tape and numerous bedroom windows that aren’t even sealed properly.

Water?

There was also the infamous 48 hours during which Ifor Evans and Max Rayne were without hot water and heating after a fuse was blown. At least the students were contacted by management about it… once the problem had been fixed. Fortunately, at the start of term, a few lucky students were able to put off the halls ‘experience’ for about a week as building work had not been completed in their accommodation when they arrived.

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The rent is…

However, if most students, past and present, have had some kind of ‘horror’ experience during their time in halls, why bother writing about them? The answer is simple: the rent is too high. UCL runs some of the most expensive student accommodation in the country and that would be somewhat justifiable if it ran some of the best student accommodation in the country, but it doesn’t. Excluding the ‘horror’ events, the basic standard of student accommodation does not correspond to the price that we are paying. When UCL charge extortionate rents and don’t invest it back into the accommodation (or at least charge lower rents), the students have to put their foot down and do something about it.

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