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Goldsmiths uni has set debt collectors on student protestors

People who participated in last year’s Cut The Rent campaign against foul living conditions and rising rents are being chased and threatened

London’s Goldsmiths University isn’t really having the best time of late in their public relations department. The uni has recently been embroiled in a controversy over a planned ‘Chicken Shop Tour’, in which students were offered to be taken on a guided tour of local south London chicken shops. This was much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone in existence, except the exact kind of desperately lost trend followers who would want to go on what amounts to a fucking fried chicken safari because of a few popular YouTube videos their mates has shown them.

And if that wasn’t bad enough – and it really, really is – it’s only set to be compounded by recent allegations of yet more skulduggery from the university, levelled at them by students who took part in last year’s ‘Cut The Rent’ protest.

Just to recap, the protests last year took place as a result of eye-wateringly high rents for first year student accommodation. Many Goldsmiths students felt the prices were excessive considering the condition of the privately owned halls: things like exploding toilets, no heating or hot water during winter, mould, and broken appliances and windows were all met with a collective eye roll and shoulder shrug by the halls management. So, as students felt that their concerns regarding the security and maintenance of the flats were largely being ignored, they organised a student union-backed protest against said conditions and housing fees, withholding rent until said issues were addressed.

And although identical strikes held at University College London (UCL) and University of the Arts London (UAL) were successful, with both UAL and UCL freezing rents and UCL pledging to increase its accommodation bursaries, the strikes at Goldsmiths were somewhat less fruitful.

Not only did the university not budge on any of the protesters rent demands, like reducing weekly rents from £147 a week, or 75 per cent of the typical maintenance grant, down to £100 a week, or 50 per cent of a typical maintenance grant, but they have actually increased rents for first year students the following year. Added to that, they have allegedly done nothing about the squalid conditions of the flats, and to top it all off management have now handed over the details of anyone who withheld rent during the protests to private legal and debt collecting companies. These firms are now throwing legal threats around, and continue to act like the intimidating arseholes that private legal and debt collecting companies tend to act like.

“I didn't even get warning to pay them or get my details passed on, they just swung my number to the Old Bailey. They started off with intimidating phone calls and letters but they backed off when I told them to leave me alone ‘cos of my mental health issues” – Tracey, Cut the Rent protester

“I got contacted in June about setting up a payment plan which I did ‘cos the uni had added bare money to my debt,” explains Tracey*, in her second year at Goldsmiths, “But when my payment flopped ‘cos my bank rejected it they didn't give a shit, and told me I had to immediately pay back the full three grand debt or get a CCJ (a court order).”

“I went into the uni to chat about it and basically got told that it was my fault for not paying,” adds Tracey. “I didn't even get warning to pay them or get my details passed on, they just swung my number to the Old Bailey. They started off with intimidating phone calls and letters but they backed off when I told them to leave me alone ‘cos of my mental health issues.”

Tracey is not alone in her story either. Jack, who has now left Goldsmiths after his first year, told me he was contacted by “Moriarty Law at first, but then a different company took over, STA International” and that he had received phone calls and letters sent to his home address. “Thankfully they don’t know where I live in London now” he added.

Another student, Dave*, now in his third year, says the initial protests last year were met with intimidation at every stage.

“I remember we had a meeting in a flat in Loring hall and as we were leaving two of the people who work for the accommodation services were waiting outside to ask us how many people were in the meeting,” Dave tells me, adding, “In the halls contract it specifies that you must be given at least 24 hour notice before anyone can enter your flat or bedroom but this was often ignored by security and even the management team.”

To add insult to injury, Dave told me he’d been sent emails “suggesting that without paying rent I may not be able to graduate”, which is against Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) rules and regulations, so is y’know, illegal.

Dazed has seen the email correspondence between the student and halls management, detailing that degree transcripts would be withheld from those with outstanding debt.

When I contacted Goldsmiths about this allegation a spokesperson for the university said: “This is not an issue, as accommodation debt is not linked to academic progression or sanctions.”

When I pressed them on the issue of handing students details to private debt collectors a spokesperson told me: “Any student in Goldsmiths managed accommodation who has paid their money into the SU account in full will not have had their details passed on to our credit control department”, which is basically another way of saying, ‘Hell yeah we got private debt collectors on those who protested!’.

Although they declined to comment on the state of the halls themselves, they did say that their “offer makes it as easy as possible for students to manage budgets as bills, possessions insurance, and WiFi are included,” adding that they “also have a Halls Fee Bursary targeted at students living in university accommodation who are from a low-income background,” as well as a “student centre offering advice and guidance around accommodation payments and, if necessary, budgeting techniques.”

So what happens now? Well those who refused to pay rent as a part of the protest now end up faced with CCJ’s, crippling debt and everything bad that scurries between those lines, at the hands of their own educator. Goldsmiths seems adamant as an institution to not bend, as other London universities have, to pressure from its own students and their representative union, so at this stage it looks like the protests were largely counter-productive, but act as a symbol for London’s inexorable death hurtle into becoming an empty soulless tax haven. A place that’s too expensive to live in for the kinds of people that used to grow up eating in fried chicken shops for lunch, rather than the kinds of people that stand agape in these eateries as a clueless sociology lecturer waffles about their recent cultural importance.