SELMA REZGUI reports on UCL’s Cut the Rent campaign’s recent success after they win £1.49 million in concessions from the university.

The UCL Cut the Rent campaign has won £1.49 million from the university after five months of rent strike, showing that direct action yields results. The second rent strike in UCL halls in the last two years has come to a close after UCL has pledged concessions to student campaigners. UCL Accommodation will offer £600,000 of bursaries for first-year undergraduate students in the 2017/18 academic year, and will work with UCL Accommodation to reallocate a further £600,000 into rent cuts for the most affordable halls for 2018/19.

After a five-month-long rent strike by 200 students, over the course of which strikers faced repeated threats of eviction from university management, UCL Cut the Rent have won concessions from UCL management, including an offer of £600,000 to fund accommodation bursaries for students in need of financial support in the 2017/18 academic year and a partial rent freeze. A further £600,000 is pledged for the following year (2018/19). This win has significantly improved upon last year’s campaign which won a £350,000 accommodation bursary for 2016/17 students.

The new bursary will be ‘progressive’: it will extend beyond traditional, limited means-testing standards to potentially include EU and international students, as well as students from higher-income backgrounds struggling to make ends meet due to circumstances such as familial estrangement. UCL Accommodation, UCLU and UCL Cut the Rent (UCL-CTR) will work together in the allocation of this bursary.

Image courtesy of UCL, Cut the Rent

UCL Accommodation has also pledged a further £600,000 for 2018/19, with an agreed amount of this to be reallocated into a rent cut of halls for that year and beyond. UCL Cut The Rent, UCLU and UCL Accommodation are to begin working on this process in Summer 2017. UCL Accommodation has also conceded a rent freeze for 2017/18 across 1,224 rooms, approximately £258,000 (calculated using the average rent of a room at UCL of £180pw). Combined with the concessions won by last year’s rent strike, this package secures a total of over £1.49 million.

The agreement also states that the accommodation deposit will be halved from £500 to £250 and the £25 fine imposed upon this year’s rent strikers waived. UCL Cut the Rent and UCL Accommodation are committed to sign a charter detailing future improvements. This charter is signed with a view to bettering overall student welfare in halls and communicating UCL’s duty of care to students.

Jack Kershaw, a first-year student at UCL, said: “I went on rent strike so that in future a wider range of students can study at UCL. The Head of UCL Estates has stated in the past that ‘some students simply can’t afford to live in London’. This is blatant social cleansing. The only reason the university froze rents and started to offer an accommodation bursary last year was due to the rent strike. This shows that UCL management need to be pressured by their own students into taking action.”

Image courtesy of Oscar Webb 2016

Harvi Chera, a first-year BAME student at UCL, said: “High and ever-increasing rents disproportionately prevent BAME and inner city students from going into or continuing higher education. I felt compelled to stop this ethnic cleansing happening at my university, an institution in the diverse city of London where I was born and now study.”

Last week’s Office for Fair Access report stated that non-continuation rate at university for black students is 1.5 times higher than other students, and the gap between the non-continuation rate for the most advantaged and disadvantaged students has extended (8.8% of the most disadvantaged students dropped out of university in 2014/15, up from 8.2%, compared to just 5% of the most advantaged students dropping out).

Shelly Asquith, Former Vice President of NUS, said: “Students at UCL have won an historic victory, with a huge concession from management. By withholding their rent, students have dealt a huge blow to for-profit education; forcing UCL to lower rents and offer bursaries to help with costs. UCL Cut the Rent played a blinder during negotiations, and this three year action has resulted in concessions worth millions of pounds. NUS now expects this to be replicated elsewhere, and will continue to support students on rent strike.”

This announcement follows a significant victory at Goldsmiths, University of London earlier this academic year, where hall rents were cut by 35% – amongst other concessions – as a direct result of last year’s rent strike.

Image courtesy of Oscar Webb 2016

Between 2009 and 2016, UCL increased the rent by 48.4%, yielding an annual surplus of £15.56m in 2015/16. UCL Cut the Rent asserts that these are tuition fee-increases by stealth, which, in a context of stagnant student incomes, rising tuition fees, scrapping of Maintenance Grants and abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), further undermines access to education for low-income students.

Becka Hudson of the Radical Housing Network, said: “The victory of UCL students has already strengthened the housing movement as a whole. The potential for the tactic to be adopted by others, to push back against untrammelled rents, housing insecurity, awful conditions and escalating dispossession and to win better conditions, cuts or caps on rent and more is huge.”

Rent is everyone’s problem: a recent study by Shelter found 53% of private tenants struggle to pay rent; in London 60% of tenants’ total income is spent on rent alone. Whilst this dispute is focused around rents in University accommodation, UCL Cut the Rent have expressed their wish to be clear that they stand in full support with wider campaigns for housing justice, which relate to the housing crisis and other critical issues in social housing.

More information and updates about UCL Cut the Rent can be found here.