At University College London, where as part of the Cut The Rent! Campaign activists have extracted plenty of shocking statistics from management, rent increases by 5% each year.
On top of that, the amount of money the university puts into maintaining the halls of residence decreases each year, while the profit they receive sky-rockets.
Because not much money is invested into the halls, they are often infested with cockroaches or mice. Things get broken and remain unrepaired or the water is shut off for days on end without students receiving any compensation.
On average, 95% of maintenance grants are spent immediately on rent, leaving not much at all for everything else. The “official” number of students using food banks has increased massively over the last two years, with one chaplain referring at least five students a week to the local food bank, as opposed to none at all two years ago.
When universities run their accommodation services for huge profit means, rent strikes hit them hard and are a very effective method of protesting. By withholding £200,000 in rent, UCL activists forced management to concede two demands almost immediately.
Encouraging students to compete against each other for the “experience” to get jobs has been capitalised on by big businesses. Employing students and paying them a slave wage, if anything at all, and telling them they should be grateful for the experience is more or less the norm now. Only those who have rich, generous parents can afford to work for free as a step towards the best paid jobs.
In 2010, it was estimated there were 70,000 interns in the UK. A fifth of them were working for no wage, and in the worst cases for no travel or food compensation either. Your “success” should not depend on the state of your parents’ bank account.
The Labour Party has announced plans to ban unpaid internships that last longer than four weeks if they win the general election, but why stop there? Accommodating big businesses disguised with doing something in the interests of poorer people isn't good enough.
As seen in the graphic below, the £9,000 generation, on average, are coming away from university with debt nearing £60,000, with the average starting salary for a graduate falling each year.
Those who graduated in 2008 will have done so with £22,000 worth of debt.
It is predicted that 85% of graduates will not pay back their loans within the 30-year limit after which the debt is scrapped by the Student Loan Company.
The odds are stacked against poorer people when it comes to higher education, and this is increasingly relevant to further education now too, with the government cutting adult education by 24%.
Persuading the “average” student that there are alternatives to the current structures in place around student loans and tuition fees should be a priority.
With the National Union of Students being next to useless on making any tangible change to students’ lives, it is up to us, the left, to organise effective strikes to stop hiking rents and occupations to halt and reverse cuts.
For the last three weeks, students at the University of the Arts, London, have been occupying a space on the Central Saint Martin's campus to protest against 570 foundation course closures and dozens of job losses.
It came as part of a small wave of occupations across London, with three others occupying to step up the fight against neoliberalism and the marketisation of our institutions.
Because the campaign at UAL has been directed on imminent cuts, with the prospect of university management collapsing at some point, it has been the focal point for London-wide activism for the past month or so. Meetings with representatives from universities all over London, as well as Warwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Amsterdam, have organised demonstrations, direct action and a campaign collective called the Free University of London.
Last week, management notified the occupation that legal proceedings had been initiated against the protesters, naming 15 people on an injunction, including three of the sabbatical officers at UAL.
On Tuesday April 14, those who were named on the injunction negotiated a deal in court, where no costs would be incurred for the students and no disciplinary action taken against them if the occupation left by 3pm. Protesters are adamant that this does not mean the campaign is over. The occupation was a tactic, not a campaign.
Both an injunction and possession order were granted, meaning that it is now illegal for students named on the injunction to occupy again.
Around 200 students gathered outside the court to support those inside, and marched from the Royal Courts of Justice to Central Saint Martin's campus.
University management taking students to court as a means of intimidating them out of protesting in the future is not a new thing, but it is becoming the norm, so it is important that solidarity and support are provided for those who are facing repression.
Megan Dunn, the vice president for higher education of NUS, showed her face at the demo, but we should remember all the other students who have been in similar situations and have been ignored by the organisation.
Occupy UAL have organised a feeder march to the UCU's Stop Cuts to Further Education march on April 25, meeting at Central Saint Martin's at 11:30.
Students at Hawkridge House (a hall for UCL students) have been withholding rent due to an ongoing dispute with UCL Accommodation, over the delay of building works that has severely disrupted student’s lives, especially making it harder to revise over the Easter break.
Since February, residents at Hawkridge, predominately overseas postgraduate students, have seen their homes transformed into a construction site as UCL – who charge £132.20 per week for a single room – erected scaffolding on all sides of their 14-story tower block. Early morning drilling, dusty rooms and a lack of sunlight and privacy have since been the norm, causing stress and health issues and leaving students unable to revise in their rooms.
For many students over the years, the increasing privatisation and outsourcing that has taken place on universities, including in student accommodation, and they’ve had to deal with the inevitable consequences of this which includes spiralling rents and worsening living conditions.
The action taken has already led to the university suspending the building work and the students are now planning to continue their rent strike until they receive due compensation for the disruption already caused. There are even talks of other UCL halls taking similar action over unacceptable living conditions.
This only shows the benefits of what happens when students organise to fight back, rather than feeling they can do nothing to resist the onslaught of exploitation that increasingly business-orientated universities are inflicting on them.
When students fight back, they can win!