UCL Must Cut the Rent

Sick of being exploited by profit-driven universities, student rent strikers are organising for change – at UCL their demands are a full refund of this year's rent and a rent freeze for the next five years.

Across Britain, students have been protesting in growing numbers against sky-high university rents. (Image credit: UCL Cut the Rent)

As the pandemic swept through society and uprooted so much of what we considered ‘normal’, political certainties have also been swept away. The blatant injustices of our economic order have been highlighted, and the higher education system has not been immune from this bonfire of illusions. The administrators of the neoliberal university system have forced students to pay for a crisis they didn’t cause, leading to rent strikes by students in at least 55 universities.

We students at UCL are proud to belong to that number. We are demanding a full refund of rent paid this year, and for a rent freeze for the next five years. Our reasons is simple: student renters are exploited heavily, and at a far disproportionate rate to the rest of the population. If your landlord put the price up every single year, and at rates wildly higher than inflation, the exploitation would soon become obvious to you.

But with first-year students constantly being replaced, universities can get away with extortionate rents. A fresh supply of teenagers fill halls every year to be plunged into deep debt and with no clue how much more they’re paying than the previous year. 15 years ago, my room was £65 a week – it’s now £198 a week.

Many feel university bosses have lied to and intimidated students who have spoken up about the abject conditions. Earlier in the year, a student paying £220 a week came back to her room to find sewage leaking from the ceiling which had soaked her bed, wardrobe, and personal belongings. Describing the events, she said:

Following initial reports of a flood on the second floor, security did not respond at all. When a full leak was discovered in my room, they took 30 minutes to come up and even look at it. Then when the more senior staff members came, they forcefully held the door so I could not go into my room and take photos and videos.

They just gave me an empty room for the night and gave me no support in moving my belongings either out of the flood or to the other room. They told me my electricals would be fine if I just left them to dry when they were clearly damaged and not working. They want to steal our money and soak us in piss.

When this story was covered in the London Tab, management denied that the leak was sewage—a claim heavily contradicted by both footage and smell—and despite the story being anonymous, reportedly phoned the student involved to harass her for coming forward and accused her of lying.

These sorts of stories are all too familiar to those involved in UCL Cut the Rent. In some halls, there have been reports of sexual harassment from security staff. Matters such as these are intimidating to speak out on, for the exact fear that you will not be believed. If the university is happy to tell a student soaked in piss that it is in fact water, what hope do the victims of such harassment have that their complaints will be taken any more seriously?

It’s no surprise, then, that mistreated students are wondering why they go to university at all, particularly when their mental health is demonstrably worsening. According to the NUS, 52 percent of students reported their mental health has grown worse than it was before the pandemic.

This statistic is obviously related to lockdowns and the virus itself, but it’s important to highlight the ways in which UCL’s management has deepened these problems. The National Student Money Survey found that 81 percent of students reported being worried about money during the pandemic, while the UCL Student Wellbeing Survey found that 60 percent of respondents reported feeling lonely every day.

We are broke and lonely for the privilege of watching zoom lectures in a £9,000-a-year box. Despite the questionable legality of doing so, university security has allowed police full access to halls so they can issue needlessly punitive fines for gatherings as small as four people. With rates of depression and suicide increasing among our generation, it’s vital that we fight administrators who couldn’t care less about our wellbeing yet profit handsomely from us.

Our campaign has not only focused on rent withdrawal. It has also engaged with other causes, including IWGB’s campaign to end zero-hours contracts among the university’s cleaning staff and halls workers. UCL reported an income of £1.4 billion in 2018: there is no need whatsoever for such an abundance of shared misery on campus. That’s why we are fighting. We want to make sure that specific victories the campaign achieves are tied to the broader continuity of a greater struggle.

This has been achieved before, too. The UCL rent strike in 2016 won a partial concession which saw the prices of some of the cheapest rooms frozen. Management has reminded us of this as a way to deny the necessity of our renewed demand for a rent freeze, but the real lesson from this is that strikes work. The task now is to go even further.

But the university, despite doing their best to delay negotiations to the start of June, has already threatened strikers with a £25 fine for late payment. Rather than taking the gravity of the situation seriously, they have decided to try breaking the strike through punitive, hollow threats.

People wonder about the likelihood of us winning, but it’s only once you break from the stagnation of student union bureaucracy and impotent petitions that people ask these questions. This year has seen the biggest wave of tenant action at British universities in the last forty years: the possibility of winning is only being questioned now because, for once, we actually might.

As Herbert Marcuse wrote, ‘the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve.’ This is not just a financial struggle with management – it is part of the demand of a generation to be liberated from debt.

We are done paying. We demand the university extend its short arms into its deep pockets. We want an end to huge rents and isolation. We don’t want ‘mental health Zooms‘ or Uber Eats vouchers. We want the university to pay.