Direct action paid off for the UCL Rent Strikers!

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.

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Students at Campbell House WON!

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.

@rentcutUCL

http://www.facebook.com/uclcuttherent

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#GrantsNotDebt

by Tom Robinson – UCLU Welfare and International Officer

Students and our education are under attack like never before. We have already seen the tripling of tuition fees in 2010, a measure that barred many potential students from coming to university. Meanwhile, our education has been steadily marketised, with our institutions run like businesses aiming to generate profit.

Now the government intends to entirely scrap maintenance grants, replacing them with loans. This will mean that students from the poorest backgrounds take on yet more debt in order to access an education – if they even start at university in the first place. We know that many students who relied on maintenance grants in order to make it through their degree simply would not have been able to come if they had been forced to take on thousands of pounds more of debt instead.

Demo 4 Nov

We know that the system was not fit for purpose in the first place. Any system for allowing access to grants which is based on means testing will mean that some students do not receive that they need. It is difficult to legally prove estrangement from your parents, which means that many LGBTQ students who do not receive financial support from ‘phobic parents are unable to claim the amount of grant that they require. We can’t argue that we should keep the current system: we need to demand a radical change, with living maintenance grants for everyone.

We cannot and will not sit quietly as the government destroys the final chance for anyone other than the vastly rich to go to university. All around the country, students are mobilising. Students organised a series of protests and occupations of MPs’ offices in mid-September, demanding that they oppose government plans to scrap maintenance grants.

On October 14, students will be demonstrating at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to demand #GrantsNotDebt, and on November 4, students from all over the UK will converge on central London to march in our thousands to demand free education and living grants for all – no barriers, no borders, and no business.

  • Also don’t miss our UCL activist meeting on Monday evening to find out more about how to get involved on campus! ‘WTF is Going on?: The fight for free education’ – full details here.
  • And, the next meeting of our ‘UCL, Cut the Rent‘ campaign on Wednesday. Details here.

Jeremy Corbyn: What Next for the Left?

By Omar Raii – UCL Department of Mathematics

In May of this year, the Tories managed to gain an overall majority in the general election and got ready to continue in power for five more years, with plans of implementing even more devastating cuts to public services and an unrelenting austerity agenda.

Imagine if someone had said at the time that a few months later, the Labour party would be led by the vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a man who had voted against the previous Labour government hundreds of times. Imagine if someone had said that this man would have as his Shadow Chancellor someone who described one of his hobbies as “generally fomenting the overthrow of capitalism”. It would probably have sounded somewhat surprising.

But that is of course exactly what has happened.

After over a hundred thousand people joined the Labour Party, as well as many registering as supporters, Jeremy Corbyn, initially quite the outsider with some bookies offering odds of 100-1 for his winning, was elected by a landslide on a mandate to oppose austerity and change the direction that Labour had been going down for many years.

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Our meeting to discuss the Corbyn phenomenon at UCL a few days ago was absolutely packed.

Corbyn has chosen as his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, someone who has not only had a track record of opposing Tory attacks on working people, but who also has supported student protests in the past. This included visiting student occupations at UCL in 2010 and 2012 to show his solidarity!

There has been a somewhat refreshing renaissance within the Labour Party and in its relation to the government it was always meant to oppose. After a majority of Labour MPs shamefully abstaining on the Tory Welfare Bill, we are now in a position where every single Labour MP voted against the Tories’ ultra-restrictive Trade Union Bill and the party is now
promising to support strikes in future. The new Labour leader’s anti-austerity politics carried over also into education and debt, where he promised to end tuition fees, leading him to be very popular with student voters and being officially supported by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

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Since Corbyn’s elections Labour MPs appear to be more decisive in their opposition to the government’s attack on workers’ rights.

With the current Tory government planning on ending maintenance grants and furthering marketisation of education with the “Teaching Excellence Framework”, this has come as encouraging news.

But this honeymoon period can’t last forever. On September 20, various youth and student groups as well as individual Labour party members that had been supportive of the campaign to get Corbyn elected came together to set up a new organisation, Labour Young Socialists, in order to build on the momentum from the campaign and to further socialist ideas and democracy within Young Labour and Labour Students as well as the wider party.

If you’re a Labour member, get involved with Labour Young Socialists as well as your local Constituency Labour Party and fight for the socialist policies that Labour desperately needs.

Why We’re Campaigning for Lower Rents at UCL

by Angus O’Brien, UCLU Halls Accommodation Officer

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.

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Winning affordable rent requires action! Last year we organised a tent protest to highlight rising rent costs and demand an end to the increases.

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.

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Occupying the Provost’s balcony to highlight UCL’s unaffordable rents and tell the Provost what we think about them!

Asking nicely won’t make UCL accommodation affordable – your help is required to run the campaign to hold UCL to account.

Join us for this year’s first regular campaign meeting on Wednesday, 7th October and for more information on how to get involved check out facebook.com/uclcuttherent

The Union has handed out information about students' rights in English and Mandarin Chinese.
Campaigns also involve a lot of communication, logistics and and letter-writing – that’s part of how the Hawkridge House rent strike was won.

Why UCLU Needs More Liberation Sabbs, Not Fewer – A Reply to Gabriel Gavin

By David Dahlborn, UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies

After shutting down debate at the last UCLU General Assembly when his side failed to win a political argument, Gabriel Gavin wrote an article for Pi to justify himself, in which he covers up his lack of arguments by throwing playground insults at me and others. Ahead of the next session of the General Assembly I’d like to take the opportunity to respond, and present my case for why UCLU should remain a campaigning organisation that stands up for students’ needs.

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David outside the UCL Student Residences Office.

Very soon, UCL management will once again increase the rent in their halls of residence by at least five percent. This rent hike will place yet another heavy burden upon students already hard-pressed to make ends meet. As a socialist who wants justice, equality and cooperation to replace exploitation, division and coercion, I find this disgusting and I will fight against it.

Why do I, as an unpaid activist and union representative, devote my evenings, lunch breaks and weekends to organising assemblies, build protests and write to UCL managers? Because, unlike the Gabriel Gavins and the Samuel Inkersoles of the world, I’ve decided to do the work actually required to concretely improve standards and conditions for students here at UCL.

Increasing rent is a political decision made by UCL bosses, who dictate how hard halls residents should be squeezed for cash. This decision will also force working class students to take on more debt and stress while in halls, if they’re lucky enough to afford university in London at all. For the past five years, UCL has consistently increased the rent far beyond the rate of inflation. The consequences of this will be felt in the pockets of students, in our mental health and among those excluded from UCL altogether simply because they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

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

Fortunately, we have the means to help us change this – a political, representative and campaigning students’ union. Through collective action we can challenge UCL management, and UCLU is the best tool we students possess to channel our demands and focus our collective bargaining power on bring down the rent. I would be the first person to admit that UCLU has its flaws (don’t we all?), but I also stress that it’s activists like me who’re the ones taking actual steps to make it better and more representative.

There is a tendency among certain careerists, and right-wing demagogues and sabbatical officers to criticise the work that my friends, colleagues and comrades on the left are doing to improve the conditions of students at UCL. These would-be union-wreckers, clearly, either do not understand what a union is for, or are happy to see the counted attempts by the university bosses’ to exploit and oppress us but raising rent or ignoring campus racism and sexism.

The case for why this position is wrong has been made explained eloquently elsewhere. Therefore, I’m not surprised that there is also a tendency among these critics to find themselves incapable of intellectually justify their arguments. Much like a children deprived of attention by an adult, these right-wingers reverted to ignoring rational arguments, shouting loudly and spreading lies and insults. Suffice to say, none of their time has been spent on getting UCL to reduce the rent. To the contrary, efforts made by Gavin and Inkersole to axe the Education and Campaigns Officer, Women’s Officer and BME Students’ Officer would – if successful – have severely decimated the ability of UCLU to stand up for our needs.

"Free Education - Tax the Rich", the slogan at the demonstration for free education 19 November 2014.
“Free Education – Tax the Rich”, the slogan at the demonstration for free education 19 November 2014.

My actions, as a socialist activist, will, in the meantime, have an actual impact on the lives and conditions of current and future UCL students. At the same time as right-wing self-publicists portray themselves as some sort of ‘voice of the masses’, while doing nothing but attack our efforts to organise ourselves as a student body, I and other activists have been organising a focused and assertive campaign to challenge the university bosses’ rent hikes. I’ve pressed UCL to financially compensate students who experienced hot water cut in halls. I’ve forced UCL to acknowledge the important of disability access in student accommodation. And, while right-wingers have happily accepted £9,000 tuitions fees, I’ve helped build a grassroots national campaign for free education. I’ve done this by engaging with students, by talking to literally hundreds of people and by representing their views and opinions. This term, I will step up the campaign against rent exploitation until UCL students have won a genuine improvement. None of these efforts to improve our material conditions would be possible without a UCLU that can be relied upon to take action for its members.

This is precisely why we need a political, campaigning students’ union that puts the material needs of its members ahead of the careers and egos the right-wingers who want to cut it. This is why we need more liberation officers, not fewer. As UCL becomes increasingly like an authoritarian government this necessity becomes ever more pressing. As UCL bulldozes our student theatre, wreaks havoc for sports clubs by timetabling lectures on Wednesday afternoons and charges us rent far above our maintenance loans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t take a stand against the bosses they will make UCL exclusive to the children of the wealthy and irreversibly damage student civil society. UCLU and I will continue to fight the rent increases and stand on the side of everybody who wants university to be available for everybody regardless of their background. I hope you will join me in this.

– Now, I’m off to write to UCL Accommodation!