For some, making banners and going on demos is as much a staple of student life as beans on toast and essay all-nighters. But recently, growing numbers of students have been protesting in a different way – by putting their money where their mouth is and refusing to pay rent.
Students across London took part in one of the largest student rent strikes in British history last Spring, and 1,000 first-years at University College London (UCL), who withheld their rent as part of a five month dispute, succeeded in getting management to offer rent freezes and a £350,000 accommodation bursary for disadvantaged students.
Their success has prompted others to consider following suit. In September, students from 25 campuses across the UK attended a Rent Strike Weekender to get information, with political backing from the NUS. So why have so many students chosen to protest in this way? And how likely are they to succeed?
Rents are soaring
Many fear that the spiralling cost of accommodation is making higher education unaffordable. Universities are continuing to raise rent and privatise halls – with accommodation costs increasing by 18% between 2012-13 and 2015-16, according to the National Union of Students (NUS). “The cost of living is driving people out of education,” says Shelly Asquith, vice president of welfare at NUS. “And because universities are refusing to act on it, and refusing to consult the students or their union, it’s no surprise it’s come to this.”
Last academic year, average student rents were £226 per week in London and £134 across the rest of the UK. According to the NUS, over 50% of students say they can’t afford their basic expenses of rent and other bills. “People say ‘oh students are always poor’,” says Esther Lutz-Davis, from the Rent Strike Working Group. “But now lots of students are actually living in poverty. Loans barely cover rent and in London they don’t cover it.”
Rent strikes are also tied to the wider housing crisis. Research shows the expansion of high-end accommodation and studio flats is pricing a lot of students out of the capital altogether. The proportion of studio flats in London has increased from 6% in 2011-12 to 29% in 2015-16, according to the NUS and Unipol.
Rent strikes could even take off in the private sector if they work for students, says a spokesperson from the Radical Housing Network. “Many people in the UK are finding it difficult to survive when so much of their income is going on rent. So there’s a possibility for rent strikes to go beyond the student movement.”
Safety in numbers
Going on rent strike is a numbers game, the activists say. Large groups of student strikers make it harder for a given university to take action. “It makes it very difficult for the university to evict people en masse,” says Asquith. “So it means students have more strength, in terms of negotiations and bargaining.”
Universities care about their image and reputation. And, as new funding rulesallow them to recruit an unlimited number of home and EU undergraduate students, many want to entice more students to apply than in previous years. So naturally they don’t want to be associated with high costs and unhappy people. “If the university gets heavy-handed and makes threats, students can shame them and get public support,” says Asquith. “It doesn’t look good for a university to do that to its students when they have a duty of care.”
Angus O’Brien, a student who helped organise the successful UCL strike last year, says: “We knew that on the money side they could wait us out, but what they couldn’t take was the damage to their image. Students shouldn’t be scared to get their message out because they will find that lots of people are sympathetic. And it’s very difficult for the university to counteract that.”
Backing from the NUS
Students at UCL credit their success to the number of students taking part, and to the fact that they prepared thoroughly and used a variety of tactics. “Last summer we knew exactly where we wanted to get to in January,” says O’Brien. “There was an entire calendar, and we were planning weeks in advance. We knew where the university’s weak spots were.”
Students also kept up the pressure, says O’Brien, “and campaigned from lots of different angles to back the strike up.” The students held big demonstrations, set up a petition and worked hard to keep the media interested. In the end, campaigners say the threat of targeting a university open day finally led to the university backing down. “Students at UCL constantly came up with new ideas,” says Asquith. “They kept the university on their toes.”
The NUS has been criticised in the past for not taking a strong enough stance when it comes to backing student protest, such as when the organisation withdraw support for one of the biggest student demos in recent years, over safety concerns. However, under its new leadership, the organisation is taking a stronger stance and politically backing student rent strikers, paying for legal advice and being vocal about the cause. “We’re going to see more rent strikes happening around different parts of the UK,” says Asquith. “And the NUS will be politically supporting them.” The organisation’s backing may give student strikers a greater feeling of legitimacy and influence the public to take greater note.
Success not guaranteed
However, many see the risk as one worth taking. The growing use of withholding rent as a key tactic is seen to show students are more sincere than ever. “There’s only so much you can do with demonstrations and marches,” says a spokesperson from the Radical Housing Network. “If you’re actually withholding rent, it demonstrates how serious you are and it forces management to make a change.”
Universities across the UK will take note as newly emboldened students prepare for a further wave of rent strikes this year.