Why Cambridge Students Are on Rent Strike

Students across thirty-one colleges at Cambridge University have gone on rent strike. Their campaign demands permanent rent reductions, remote learning options – and an end to job cuts for campus staff.

As I packed my bags and prepared for my third year of university, I noticed that the atmosphere of excitement usually accompanying my departure was absent from my family home. Instead of my typical sense of gratitude – gratitude that I get to study at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions – I felt sick with anxiety. This year, I was leaving my family without any guarantee of when I would see them again.

When I arrived at my college, it became clear that my discomfort about being forced to travel in the middle of a pandemic to complete an entirely online course was widespread among the student body. Masked freshers, who usually arrived to enthusiastic welcomes and a host of colourful activities, were saying their goodbyes to their parents in the car park due to a ban on outsiders entering the building.

Emails sent before our return stressed that things would be as normal as possible as long as we followed guidelines. The communication made it clear that the onus of responsibility for our welfare fell on our shoulders, and while the rhetoric was of ‘community’ and ‘togetherness’, I had never felt more alone since leaving home.

Later, following a positive test in my household, I was faced with two weeks of isolation. I hadn’t had any contact with my Covid-positive housemate, but it was against the rules to enter the room of one of my other isolating housemates, leave my staircase to go on a socially-distanced walk in my college’s vast outdoor gardens, or even access laundry facilities. My mental health was soon at an all-time low, and despite my record of mental health problems, I wasn’t once contacted by pastoral advisors or counsellors.

But the workload continued, even as mounting concerns over student wellbeing were ignored by senior management. Apparently, nobody had foreseen the dangers of forcing halls residents to maintain a Cambridge-level work ethic while being deprived of human contact or fresh air for over a month.

My feeling of powerlessness worsened as open letters were dismissed, concerns minimised, and emails ignored. Senior management were finally forced to pay attention when students across 31 colleges announced a rent strike.

Some of the Cambridge students who have fared relatively well during the pandemic, in comparison to those who are international students, disabled, or struggling to pay rent, have questioned why hundreds of us have chosen to withhold rent until our demands are met. The answer is that it has been made clear we are little more than cash cows.

Management has willingly put us at risk in order to extract extortionate rent, and we exhausted every single ‘moderate’ option until we were left with no leverage beyond withholding our money. The pandemic has exposed the inherent failures of the neoliberal university, and we won’t accept having to foot the bill for those weaknesses.

In Manchester, rent-striking students have seen historic wins, securing the largest ever rebate for a British rent strike campaign. At Cambridge, we’re joining the national movement for systemic transformation and a fairer, more just way of treating students and staff at universities by demanding the following:

  1. A 30% rent reduction for this year, and a permanent 10% rent reduction
  2. All students to be given the option of studying remotely
  3. No Covid-19 job losses
  4. No disciplinary action for rent strikers.

Rent Strike Cambridge is composed primarily of students, but we want to build an enduring coalition of students and workers. One of the core limitations of the 2010 student protests was the fact that they were conducted by and for students alone; in the current situation, the combined efforts of renters and workers in Cambridge is key to initiating change.

We’re told our rent is justified as a necessity for keeping the system afloat – a claim which makes clear that the university has not considered how its workers are keeping afloat among threats of widespread redundancies. There’s no doubt that Cambridge and its colleges can afford to accept our demands: according to a 2018 report, Cambridge University and its colleges are worth £11.8 billion. We hope these demands will address not only the immediate consequences of the pandemic, but also the ever-rising cost of living, which shows no sign of slowing down.

The pandemic has made a decades-long process of financialisation in what can only be called a higher education industry immediately and materially felt by the students and staff now seen as secondary to the business model – a model of which landlordism is a key part. The rent refusals sparking across the country are a rejection of the complete disregard for personal welfare that is necessitated by marketisation. Withholding rent is an exercise of the collective power we hold as the unwilling ‘consumers’ of the Cambridge ‘product’: this is the system we’re planning to beat.