Following 150 UCL students’ active refusal to pay a combined total of £250,000 worth of rent money last month while demanding a 40% rent cut, the UCL Cut the Rent campaign is now escalating further. This term, 500 more students have stated that they will withhold their rent in third term, adding considerable weight to our case against UCL.
The general feeling among strikers is that of despondency: UCL, in order to wear us down, have drawn out the process of dealing with the strike with infuriating bureaucracy. But with the next wave of escalation including demonstrations and a further meeting with UCL management, our hopes for success are high. If UCL continues to remain so unclear about their rent policy, and refuses to accept that their rent prices are resulting in near-social cleansing among prospective students, then this is a problem that will persist into the near and distant future, much to the disadvantage of the university itself.
Since the initial strike action in January, several meetings have taken place with UCL management, perhaps the most momentous being the appearance of Andrew Grainger, Director of Estates and Duncan Palmer, Director of Student Accommodation in our humble Max Rayne common room a few weeks ago. They agreed to the meeting on the premise that each party - the students and the management - would listen to each other’s position on the rent strike in sight of future negotiations to come to an agreement on its outcome. The reality of this was quite different…
Since the beginning of the strike, the recurring argument of UCL in justification of their rent fees, and a point returned to by Grainger and Palmer in the Max Rayne meeting, was that their rates had to remain “competitive” in sight of other London Universities and the private sector. The immediate criticism for that is a university’s primary role as a provider of education and welfare to its students, not as a competitive institution that needs to strive for a superior reputation and financial position. Palmer insisted in the meeting that: “I know you argue it’s not [affordable], but compared with the private sector, we do very well and comparatively to other universities, we have cheaper accommodation”. The second claim made here is incorrect: an internal report proved that UCL had the second most expensive accommodation of universities in London based on average rent of £180 per week. Secondly, this also proves that one of their key focuses is comparison with the private sector - which is irrelevant when, as Grainger also stated: “we own this property” - while also demonstrating that they attended a meeting with less knowledge of their own accommodation prices than the students on strike. Students at UCL should not be compared to customers of a private institution: we should be charged based on our ability to afford the fees, not on what will provide the university with most profit.
Just one of the main criticisms of the rent strike has been that students hoping to attend UCL should have done some research prior to accepting their offers, and worked out whether they could afford to live in London or not. Grainger reiterated this sentiment twice in the meeting: “I’m sorry but some people just simply cannot afford to study in London.”, “Sorry, but, accommodation is affordable for some, but not for others,” and finally and most incriminatingly: “‘we don’t set our rents on the basis of the least well-off students.”
UCL are quite simply depriving themselves of some potentially excellent students that could enhance the university and their academic reputation, by over-pricing their accommodation so that those from lower income families cannot afford it, thus avoiding London and UCL entirely. He then contradicted himself in his article: “Affordability forms part of the fair access to higher education agenda, which exists to ensure that students from lower income families are not excluded and are equally able to access student accommodation at UCL”. If UCL management are not consistent in their statements, it leaves us wondering why they are not transparent about their financial procedures.
One of the main justifications for the rent strike is the £16 million profit that UCL gain from accommodation fees, a large sum that could quite easily contribute to a cut in rent prices. In the meeting, the pair made it unclear as to how exactly this money was being used in order to legitimise the price of UCL accommodation: in the refurbishment of existing accommodation, or in the expansion of the UCL Estates. They made the claim that: “We will be spending something like £35 million on Astor College over the next two years...Ramsay Hall...similar problem...So we’ll probably spend £40 million on that…”, suggesting that refurbishment was their key investment. However, a quick glance at UCL financial statements shows that between 2009/10 and 2013/14, the vast majority of expenditure went on expansion: the building of New Hall and expansion of John Dodgson came to £50 million, in contrast to the meagre £2.4 million of “other” spending. Clearly, their expenditure is focussed on the extension of UCL Estates rather than the prosperity and welfare of their existing students in halls. In his article on UCL’s website, Grainger merely served to further UCL’s lies in how they are spending their supposed “surplus”: “...all the money raised from our rents is used to cover costs or to make improvements to the accommodation that we offer…”
With the strike at Max Rayne still ongoing, the impending threat of fines and evictions looms over the students involved. After threatening emails from UCL management were brought up at the meeting with Palmer and Grainger, it seemed they themselves were unsure if the strikers should be subject to the normal procedure of eviction; “I, I think the overarching process remains...” was the tagline for the response Duncan Palmer gave, reminding many present of the events at the Campbell House West strike last year.
In this case striking students were threatened with academic sanctions, which Grainger admitted at the meeting was entirely in error and should not have happened and for which UCL were reprimanded by the Competition and Markets Authority. The apparent disarray in which management deals with these situations leaves strikers apprehensive about what might happen next. But we are confident that management are at least able to see how much damage they would do to themselves by trying to evicting us all, as they are threatening to. This campaign has huge support across universities and London and we expect that a call-out for a national demonstration at UCL in support of the strikers would be met with a lot of energy and commitment from all over the country.