I Watched Rent-Striking Students in London Celebrate Their £850,000 Victory
The UCL students don't consider the battle won quite yet, but have gained what they consider a major rent cost concession from their university's administration.
It's about lunchtime on a Saturday, and I'm surrounded by banner-carrying, cheering students in central London. These lot attend University College London (UCL), and say they've won an £850,000 rent cut from their university for the first time in decades – and are spending the day marching round the city in celebration.
The students, around 1,000 of whom are refusing to pay an estimated £1 million in rent they owe, had threatened to "shut down" a university open day over the extortionate rents before they say the university emailed them last week conceding – partially – to their demands.
"We've forced UCL into massive concessions over the cost of the rent," says Angus O'Brien, one of the strike organisers. "UCL accepted our demand 24 hours before the start of their open day, that we threatened to shut down. We forced Rex Knight [one of the university's senior managers] into a room – after we burnt his effigy and took sustained radical action – and made him agree to make life at UCL better for students. We aren't going to stop now; we're going to keep going."
According to activists in the UCL Cut the Rent campaign, university managers have offered a rent cut of £350,000 to incoming freshers in 2016, and a £500,000 rent cut for those coming in 2017. Though the strikers haven't officially accepted the offer yet, they said it's highly likely they will later this week.
That's about a 2.5 per cent reduction over two years, which doesn't sound like much until you consider the rents have risen quickly – by about 40 percent according to UCL, and 56 percent according to the rent strike campaign – for six years, to the point where an average room in the college halls is £165 per week.
According to UCL's annual accounts, the university has year-on-year been increasing the profit it makes from student halls. In 2000, the university made a £1.6 million profit on the halls of residence; in 2005 it was £8.5 million, and in 2014 it was £18 million, which makes you think perhaps they could, if they were so inclined, cut the rent even further.
Instead of shutting down the university's open day on Saturday, the students decided to march around central London celebrating their victory and spreading their "rent cut" message.
The hundred-strong group of protestors did a victory lap of the university, letting off smoke bombs and receiving bemused looks from prospective students looking around for the day.
VICE caught up with one of the organisers of the strike, Iida Kayhko, a recent UCL archaeology graduate. "UCL halls are some of the oldest in London and in some of the shittest of condition. There are vermin problems, problem with heating, getting hot water, getting running water at all. Everyone's struggling to pay and everyone's had enough. That's why we're on rent strike," she said.
"This isn't what we wanted — we want a 40 percent rent cut. This is just the first step; we're going to escalate next year. The real dream is that this starts national rent strikes at universities but also more generally."
"Fuck UCL and fuck the high rents," another protestor chipped in.
From the university, the protest marched down to Oxford Street, finding a new target for their anger at the headquarters of Savills, the international property giant who they accused of social cleansing in London.
Currently, according to the activists, about 1,500 student in London are on rent strike – mostly at UCL but also at Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway and the Courtauld Institute of Art. The rent strikers say that they've also been in contact with activists at Oxford, Sussex and Sterling universities wanting to emulate the strike. They're adamant that their fight could be copied, more generally, and could lead to rent strikes in London and cities across the country.
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