Rent Strike! 3 Lessons from the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign

by Carlus Hudson

26 January 2016

Last year University College London (UCL) students won an incredible victory against university management, having campaigned for months against extortionate rents. Students organised themselves and went on a rent strike. Despite threats from the university to expel rent strikers from their courses, students held firm and won over £400k in compensation.

But the fight is far from over, so on Monday students declared a new rent strike. UCL students still pay an average of 56% more rent than they did in 2009, and university management continues to make a ridiculous amount of money from its accommodation. The new strike demands a 40% cut in rent, and management is set to lose £250k in withheld rent until the demand is met.

With a new rent strike, there is a unique chance to reflect on how the Cut the Rent campaign has done so far. The fight of UCL students is the fight of all students who have ever lost most of their loan and maintenance grant to accommodation costs, but last year’s victory, as important as it is, was a local one. There aren’t many campuses with as active or effective campaigns which can force their university management to backpedal. There’s a lot to be inspired by in the UCL Cut the Rent campaign, but also a lot to be learned from it.

1. Being radical works.

The extent of most student union (SU) campaigning on housing is politely lobbying university management. Often all that happens is the SU is told that it’s all out of the university’s hands, and the most management can do is politely ask whatever company has the contract for student halls to lower rents. “Well why not run student accommodation in-house?” says the SU. “The contracts don’t expire for another decade,” replies the university. “And anyway your union president a few years ago didn’t complain about it then.”

The way in which decisions are made about student housing excludes the students themselves. Even when SU officers have an exceptional idea of what they’re doing and how to work the process, it’s still an uphill battle. Students are marginalised if not totally ignored, and this situation is even worse for those – international students, for example – who struggle as it is to get their voices heard in their own unions.

Ultimately, the profits universities make from rent speak far louder than the real, human needs of the students who pay and live in their accommodation. If crap, unaffordable housing is all that’s on offer, students must make it as unprofitable for their university managements as possible. This isn’t to say a group of several activists can, without building a base of support first, declare an immediate and indefinite rent strike. However, for a housing campaign to be truly effective it must be open to escalation and tactics that will hit management where it hurts. Even the tangible threat of a rent strike can make management think twice, and strengthen the bargaining position of students. The £400k compensation already won by UCL students and their continuing fight really speak for themselves here.

2. Fight like a union.

One of the least surprising factors in the success of the UCL Cut the Rent campaign is that, while being oriented towards a broader politics of free education, it focused practically on the very specific issue of student housing. The campaign fought against an injustice which was apparent and easily relatable to a very large number of students, making it possible to mobilise and win their support.

All too often – it’s a cliché of National Union of Students (NUS) conferences – a dichotomy gets drawn between so-called ‘political’ or ‘left-wing’ issues and those that ‘actually affect students’. The implication is that apolitical and right-wing SU and NUS officers have a monopoly on worthwhile student activism. This is completely false, and those who make this dichotomy would know it if they ever took part in worthwhile student activism, rather than letting others do the work while they take the credit.

The UCL Cut the Rent campaign shows that there is no dichotomy. The programmatic connection between free education and housing costs is one that can be made between free education and every way students get screwed over for management’s profits. Every issue down to study space on campuses, library fines and water fountains can and should be politicised. It is naïve to believe that university managements will not cut every corner they can to make money: they must be resisted in these terms.

3. Dare to imagine.

Free education means a lot more than no tuition fees. Free education is a radical vision for society that encompasses further as well as higher education, and which places students and workers before profit. Students can’t rely on university authorities or their decision-making processes, which can exclude or trap student unions.

UCL Cut the Rent linked up with workers at their university. Many of those active in the campaign have also been active in Justice for Cleaners campaign alongside Unison activists. Local Unison branches even raised £150 to help students facing fines (later retracted!) for late payment of rent. Acts of practical solidarity have put pressure on university management, showing that the self-organisation and active cooperation of workers and students is key to winning free education.

In organising themselves, students at UCL have demonstrated there is nothing inevitable or unavoidable in what their university management is trying to get away with. For students anywhere to fight back effectively, they must have faith in their own collective strength. In the words of one of UCL Cut the Rent’s organisers, David Dahlborn: “With the right ideas and skills you can replicate this tenants’ union and rent action anywhere, in other halls or public or private rented housing – we see it as the first path that can point to a radical grassroots path out of the housing crisis.”

Photo: UCL Cut the Rent/Facebook

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