Student rent strikers held a protest party last night in London, as more students decided that the best way to deal with over the top rent was to simply not pay it.
The party started in the main square of University College London (UCL), where hundreds of students are withholding rent said to amount to over $1.4 million. The complaint is that the university rents out accommodation at a 45 percent profit margin, making accommodation unaffordable.
When I arrived, people were standing around, smoking cigarettes, and listening to reggaeton, radiating the kind of energy you're still charged with when you don't have to work a nine to five. It was pretty vibey, and enough to make me wish that I was a student again.
However, the whole point of the event was to point out that being a student now kind of sucks. For many, the financial cost is becoming untenable, and—particularly if you're in London—that's in no small part due to rent prices.
One second year French student named Jake said that his rent last year took up "about 85 percent of my loan, and I get a generous loan."
"It's disgraceful that the university says they charge competitive rents, while I now have a room that's three times as big—fair enough, it's farther out of London—and I'm better off," he said. "I didn't have money to do things I wanted to do. I could pay to eat, but I ended up with a job. We couldn't go out as a group."
At this point, someone got on a megaphone and started leading chants, such as the fairly prosaic "Cut the rent!"—which was later superseded by the more original, "UCL, we got beef, cut the rent, don't be a thief!"
Before long, there was a choreographed piece of protest theater, as flares were lit from the plinths surrounding the quad, and banners were dropped from the surrounding walls.
Then the march set off. A bike-mounted sound system led the way, playing Grimes's "Kill V. Maim" as people chanted "UCL, cut the rent!" over the top.
The march made its way to the intersection of two main roads. The protesters plonked themselves across it and burned an effigy of UCL Vice Provost (Operations) Rex Knight. Knight is seen as the enforcer of the university's marketizing agenda, and a lot of people were wearing masks of his face. He is, I'm reliably informed, a man who nibbles at his fingers during meetings, which has been taken by students as a sign of being untrustworthy.
The effigy burned fairly impressively, signaling the students' desire for a hasty Rexit. Increasingly, the heads of universities aren't seen as kindly deans coaxing the best out of their students, but as hated businessmen and landlords who occupy the same cultural space as estate agents and the CEOs of tax-avoiding corporations.
The burning was emblematic of a so-far savvy campaign, one that has taken onboard a hard-learned lesson from the 2010 student movement: Journalists like to point cameras at things that are on fire. It's this kind of media nous that gets you editorials in the Independent saying you have "rekindled the debate about access to higher education, especially in the UK's most expensive cities." The university, on the other hand, has found itself in a PR shit-storm. Case in point: when it was accused of bullying its own student journalist who obtained classified documents about its business plans. Which isn't a great look.
Perhaps more significant than that is the spreading of this kind of protest. On the same day, Goldsmiths, University of London students announced a rent strike of their own.
A Goldsmiths, Cut the Rent campaign spokesperson named Joe told me, "The campaign has exploded. We tried to start a petition, and all the hall residents we spoke to said, 'Well, why can't we go on rent strike?' We expect it to grow quite massively after the announcement yesterday—we're getting emails from people wanting to join."
Was he surprised at this progress? "Incredibly. The UCL campaign has done a lot of the important psychological groundwork that made this seem like a realistic possibility. There's probably a wider student malaise around rent and probably a willingness to act."
It's the question of contagion that could prove to be most interesting.