Students Call For Nationwide Rent Strikes!

Students with their ‘Rent Strike’ banner on a march against the Housing Bill earlier this year
Students with their ‘Rent Strike’ banner on a march against the Housing Bill earlier this year

NATIONWIDE student rent strikes have been called for by more than 25 universities who gathered in London over the weekend of the 16th-18th September.

Activists discussed and prepared for nationwide student rent strikes which have become even more necessary as student rents are spiralling out of control. The following statement was produced by the weekend event: ‘In January students at University College London (UCL) began an indefinite rent strike. By June over 1,000 students were on strike and the university was forced into implementing rent reductions, freezes and bursaries, concessions totalling over £1,200,000.

‘The conditions that led to the UCL rent strike are not exclusive. Students across the UK are being placed under increasing stress in all areas, including housing, by their universities and the government. The fightback that began at UCL has been proven as an effective and replicable mode of action that we cannot afford to ignore.

‘Rent from student accommodation is a powerful enabler of the continued marketisation of higher education, and profits from student rents are integral to the new financial strategy of universities. The tuition fee hike to £9,000 was lobbied for by university Vice Chancellors across the country, with full understanding of the changes it would bring to the funding structure of universities, and of the consequences it would have on the lives of students.

‘As an assembly of students from over 25 universities, we collectively call on students across the country to seriously consider rent strikes as a viable and productive course of action, which has the potential to leverage the power of the student body to materially improve conditions for students who find themselves placed in housing stress.

‘The housing crisis is not specific to students. Rent is everyone’s problem, suffocating the lives of millions and disproportionately affecting women, the disabled and black and brown communities. We call on all students to offer immediate and consensual support to all those struggling to simply exist. University managements’ attempts to exploit us through high rents can be stopped. We are no longer interested in pursuing a defensive agenda.

‘By rent striking we fight to win a meaningful life. We call for mobilisation towards coordinated rent strikes in January, with an initial day of action on Friday, October 19th. We call for all students looking to find a better world to join us. See you on the streets.’

The National Union of Students (NUS), including President Malia Bouattia and Vice President Shelly Asquith, UCL, Cut the Rent, the Radical Housing Network, Plan C, Sisters Uncut were among those who attended. Shelly Asquith, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said accommodation costs had increased by 18% between 2012-13 and 2015-16 and that rent strikes were now a key tactic for students.

‘Extortionate rents, coupled with course fees and other rising living costs, are now preventing lots of working-class students from attending university altogether, especially in cities such as London,’ she said. According to our own figures at NUS, over 50% of students say they can’t afford their basic expenses of rent and other bills,’ she told the event in south London over the weekend.

The NUS is calling for a system where 25% of all university bed spaces are offered at 50% of the maximum amount of maintenance loan available. The union is pledging legal guidance, support in petitioning university management and a safe account where students can deposit their accommodation fees.

Asquith said rent strikes had the potential to spread across UK universities. When people first hear about rent strikes they think, “That sounds a bit scary,” but where they have happened, lots of students who don’t see themselves as political have got involved because they see hundreds of other people in their halls doing it. It’s about strength in numbers.’

He added: ‘In 2010 students cared about tuition fees because that was the big issue. Now students live very different lives: rates of mental illness are much higher; many, many more people are in work – around 60% of students have to work now. Students aren’t as comfortable as they used to be and as life gets tougher, people are stopping caring about huge policy issues and thinking, “I’m finding it increasingly difficult to live in Brighton and study on campus”.’

Martin Blakey, chief executive of student housing charity Unipol, said the expansion of high-end accommodation and studio flats was pricing students out. In London, the proportion of studio flats has increased from 6% in 2011-12 to 29% in 2015-16, according to NUS/Unipol research. Last academic year, average student rents were £226 per week in London and £134 across the rest of the UK.

‘If you look at London, it’s really the eye of the storm and it’s a warning story of what might happen elsewhere. This year in Nottingham there’s about an extra 800 bed spaces coming online from purpose-built operators. And of that about 650 of those are studio flats, ie very expensive,’ he said, adding that the trend was not driven by student demand.

Universities should develop an affordable rent strategy, he said. Quite often institutions just don’t notice that a lot of their accommodation is getting very expensive. The regional variations are really significant and they don’t necessarily bear any relation to housing prices.’

Ben Beach, an activist at the Radical Housing Network, which helped organise the rent strike event, said that many young people felt there was nothing to lose by taking part. I think people are just thinking, “Well we might as well give it a go”,’ he said.