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28th January 2016

UCL student strike action for rent cuts continues

Strikers are withholding more than a quarter of a million pounds in accommodation fees to pressure the university into cutting rents by 40 per cent

Students at UCL are threatening to withhold rent payments that could total £250,000 to protest sky-high university accommodation costs.

As part of the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign more than 150 students living in university accommodation are withholding their payments until they achieve their goal of a 40 per cent rent cut.

Since 2009, according to the campaigners, rent costs at the university have risen by about 56 per cent, with Ramsey Hall’s 473 rooms ranging between £158.97 and £262.43 a week.

In an interview with The Mancunion, Pearl Ahrens, an 18-year old first year student in Politics and Eastern European Studies and one of the UCL Cut the Rent campaigners, said: “We think that the rent is too high and that students can’t afford to stay in them and to have a fulfilling university experience at this cost.”

According to Ahrens, if you are a student within the high income bracket you will receive a student loan worth £5,205. The most you will receive as a student in the lowest income bracket is £6,313. Commenting on these figures, Ahrens asserted: “The current yearly rent at Max Rayne, which is a hall that is striking, is £5,433 which falls in between those. With a cut of 40 per cent that would make it £3,260 so that everyone can afford to live in Max Rayne and even more expensive ones.”

London School of Economics is currently working on the Cost of Living Petition also aimed at developing an affordable rent strategy for university accommodation. Although UCL does not have contacts to any other London universities at the moment, Ahrens was not opposed to the idea of seeking co-operation with other student campaigns aimed at tackling London’s “extortionate” rent cost as this would ensure a “more co-ordinated campaign.”

The Cut the Rent Campaign first made headlines last autumn when 238 former residents of UCL student accommodation were compensated with £1,200 each as a result of a student strike which aimed to tackle hazardous living conditions. Students complained of rat-infested housing and their lack of sleep as a consequence of continued construction work outside their halls.

While this strike is seen as a success in the eyes of the campaigners, Ahrens indicated that this next wave of strikes serves to tackle the issue of rent costs on a larger scale. She commented on the strikes last autumn, saying that “even though their conditions were bad, everyone’s rent is high. No matter what the conditions are, even if they were perfect it still wouldn’t be worth the amount of money that we are paying. It’s extortionate. I’m paying £175 a week and my conditions are okay but if you can’t afford £175 then you can’t go to university. It’s pushing people out of access to education.”

Ahrens expresses her disappointment at the university’s inadequate response. Other than withholding more than a quarter of a million of pounds in rent payments, the campaign has also conducted several demonstrations in the autumn term, had a bloc in the education march, and handed in a petition with over 1,000 signatures. Despite these efforts, UCL has not yet conceded to their demands. “So the strike is our last resort,” said Ahrens, “and we are willing to do it again, and we hope that it will win because it won last time.”

She is confident that the strike will be a success and the same can be said for Angus O’Brien. O’Brien, 20, is a second year student in Social and Political Studies and the UCL union halls accommodation representative as well as one of the founders of the Cut the Rent campaign. In his statement to The Mancunion on how confident he feels about the future of the strike, he said: “It is the only way to actually get UCL management to engage with us on this issue and we are expecting them to contact us properly.

“At the very least we’ll have a dialogue with them about how unaffordable it is and how it’s sort of crushing the future of our university that is cutting off people from accessing education here. I always say it’s like an unofficial entry requirement that you have to have a lot more money to actually come.”

In Tuesday’s campaign meeting at UCL’s Students’ Union, current negotiations and future plans for collective action were discussed. Major developments were outlined by David Dahlborn, a 22-year-old Politics and Jewish Studies student and one of the founders of the campaign.

Just several hours before the meeting UCL management had contacted the campaigners asking for a meeting with them. Dahlborn suspected that the campaign had “embarrassed [UCL management] to the point where they cannot defend their position.” Furthermore, he announced that more of UCL’s student halls such as Ramsay and Schafer are potentially interested in pledging to join the strike.

When asked how many strikers have currently joined the campaign in withdrawing their rent payments, O’Brien claimed that “we don’t know the exact figures at the moment, we know it’s over 150. It all got quite confusing because another hall spontaneously did it without us really interfering so we don’t know the numbers from them yet, it could be around 30 – 40.”

In light of this growing campaign throughout UCL’s student campus, Ahrens expressed no doubt that collective action will continue until demands are met by the university. “We’re striking the second term and depending on how it goes possibly a strike in the third term as well.” Furthermore, during the meeting it was announced that the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign will be taking part in the large demo on Saturday the 30th of January against the government’s proposed Housing Bill.

In a concluding statement to The Mancunion, Ahrens emphasised that this campaign highlights the larger issue of housing in London and the difficulty for low income families to access higher education at these costs: “It’s a human catastrophe. Students shouldn’t have to worry about money. It is not fair to make profit off education when some people can’t even afford to be here. It’s a societal problem which is preventing many people from accessing education.”

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