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London students are striking over soaring rents

UCL’s ‘Cut The Rent’ strikers are calling for a 40 per cent rent cut – and they’re withholding £250,000 from the university until they get it

If there’s one group of people really feeling the brunt of the government’s cuts, it’s students. Within just five years, their tuition fees have tripled, their grants have been scrapped, and the UK’s university system has become the most expensive in the world. It’s little wonder that some of them have resorted to commuting over 1000 miles to get to their lectures. You want to broaden your mind with some higher education? Well get ready to jump through some seriously shameful hoops to do it.

One university that’s feeling the struggle more than most is UCL. Noted as one of the country’s most expensive, the London institution has been hit by a series of student strikes due to it’s soaring accommodation – which now costs up to £209.79 a week. As a result, a new “Cut The Rent” campaign has been gathering support: with student strikers withholding £250,000 until their demands of a 40 per cent rent cut are met.

“The high cost of living (and what is now becoming a higher cost of living thanks to the rent) is obviously difficult for students to deal with,” explains rent striker Josh Clark. “They know London will be expensive and so they save where they can but sometimes this doesn't really cut it. I think what I see most of the time is just fear; these students are afraid of going into their overdraft through no real fault of their own, rather through having no other choice.”

Another striker, Sarah Benemar, is equally anxious about the rocketing costs. “The pricy rent translates into students not being able to afford travelling costs,” she says. “Going out and enjoying London is also very difficult, even impossible for some, especially when those who have to work a certain number of hours to make ends meet.”

“If they try to break the strike or sanction the students, we'll only come back stronger – their only course of action is to listen to us” – Angus O'Brien

It’s not the first time that UCL students have protested against the available accommodation, either. Another successful campaign last year saw the university pay out £100,000 worth of compensation, after residents complained that the noisy, rat-infested halls weren’t worth the hefty monthly cost (approximately £1200). This time, though, protestors are yet to have the same success. 

“The only way to make the university listen to our concerns is by taking radical action,” explains Angus O'Brien, the UCLU Halls Accommodation Representative. “The students striking now will force UCL to deal with its unsustainable and unfair rent setting policy, this is the only option we are now left with in the campaign for affordable accommodation here. If they ignore us now, they lose hundreds of thousands of pounds, if they try to break the strike or sanction the students, we'll only come back stronger – their only course of action is to listen to us.”

It’s a risky method, and one that’s being constantly discussed throughout many metropolitan campuses. When confronted with a similar issue last year, London’s University of the Arts schools retaliated by giving students what they wanted: a rent freeze for 2016/17. Given all the shit that’s been heaped on students – and the consequential rise in mental health issues – it seems like a small price to pay.

When asked how they were planning to handle the “Cut The Rent” campaign, UCL told Dazed that they were “actively seeking dialogue” with the group. “We make every effort at UCL to keep rents as low as possible, which is a difficult challenge considering our central London location,” they stated. “Our rents are competitive in comparison with equivalent London institutions, and far less than rates for comparable accommodation in the private sector. The NUS’s accommodation costs survey recognises UCL’s efforts in this regard, and acknowledges the university’s commitment to keeping a significant proportion of its accommodation in the lowest cost band of £120-150 a week.”

It may sound evasive, but striker Josh Clark is hopeful their needs will eventually be met. “I really do believe that this rent strike is going to be successful,” he says. “Not least because the strikers are passionate, but because it needs to happen. UCL has been stubborn in the past with this sort of stuff, but when students unite on something like this, they usually wash change over it, something I really look forward to witnessing...”

Hear more about the Cut The Rent campaign by following them on Facebook here, or you can sign their petition here.