UCL, Cut The Rent has announced a fresh rent strike at the university, the third in as many years. UCL management failed to respond to a petition signed by 500 students, demanding a 10% rent cut.
As universities across the UK appear on the verge of fresh strikes, London Student explains the essential information you need to know about the popular housing protest tactic.
What is a rent strike?
Rent strikes are a protest tactic whereby participants refuse to pay rent on their place of residence, in the hope of winning concessions from landlords or property managers.
In the context of universities, this is typically done collectively within halls of residence, lobbying universities directly to get a better deal for students.
What do rent strikers want?
Rent strikers do not all want the same thing. Some rent strikes are more focused on improving living conditions and forcing property managers to carry out repair works, while others demand reduced or subsidised rents.
One key theme is that campaigners do not believe that studying at their first-choice university should be dependent on a student’s financial means. When rents are often so high that they cannot be covered by the maximum amount of student loan, this is a concern. Universities’ rent-setting policies are frequently described as “social cleansing” by activists who believe soaring costs are pricing out lower income students.
Jack Kershaw, currently on rent strike at UCL, says: “I’m rent-striking so future students can study at UCL on the basis of academic ability rather than financial background. We must fight against the social cleansing of our University.”
Do rent strikes win?
In 2014-15, the mere threat of a rent strike in Hawkridge House at UCL was enough for residents to be refunded some of their rent.
The 2016 UCL rent strike declared victory after the university created significant accommodation bursaries that would make it easier for students from lower income backgrounds to afford to live in pricey London halls. However campaigners had actually demanded a 40% rent cut.
Whether that rent strike won is dependent on perspective. The accommodation bursaries were largely a sticking plaster so that UCL would not actually have to cut the rent; but the university had nonetheless been forced into concessions which campaigners could later build on.
On balance, rent strikes are unlikely to immediately win everything campaigners have asked for on the first go. The success of the tactic appears to be a question of more gradual progress dependent on how frequently it is used and how many people are involved.
What do I need to do to join?
Rent strikes are a very accessible form of protest, as technically all you need to do is withhold your rent.
Typically there is also an element of collectivity. The current UCL rent strike was organised on the basis of needing 200 students to take part if it was to go ahead. This is so that the group of strikers is significantly big that there is safety in numbers. A larger strike group is more worrying for the university, and thus more likely to win concessions.
If there is a housing campaign group at your university you may want to sign up to a mailing list, follow them on social media, or attend meetings to find out more about joining a rent strike. You may also want to keep up with the national campaign group Rent Strike, which helps students organise rent strikes and has also led other protest actions.
Are rent strikes legal?
On the one hand, rent strikes are not legal, as they break a contract between the resident and the accommodation provider. This means landlords are entitled to pursue rent payments in the courts, and to begin eviction proceedings against those who don’t pay rent.
However there is also recognition in the courts that withholding rent as part of a deliberate and targeted strike, with clearly expressed aims and a request put to the landlord, is different to other failures to pay rent.
The main protection for rent strikers comes not from the law, but from the solidarity of a large strike. When legal action would involve cases against hundreds of people, a lot of time and money is required, and universities may find it easier to negotiate.
It’s also important to remember that the high levels of press attention surrounding rent strikes mean that legal action would look bad for a university. This is particularly true where rents are considered especially high or where conditions are poor.
In two years of rent strikes at UCL, no one has been taken to court over rent arrears, although this has been threatened.
Am I going to be evicted if I take part?
Universities do have the legal power to evict striking students, but activists generally believe bad press will prevent this. It also requires a lot of time and money.
In 2016, it took until late March for UCL to inform strikers that they would receive a notice to quit their accommodation (an eviction notice) if they continued to withhold rent, when they had been refusing to pay since January. It was never sent.
In general, the joint concerns of time, money, and bad press make sanctions an unattractive option. When legal sanctions for student rent strikes have come into play in the past, universities have tended to negotiate in the end, and the legal threats have not been carried out.
Could I be kicked off my course?
Students who take part in a rent strike will still be able to continue at university.
The Office of Fair Trade has found threats of expulsion in response to non-payment of rent to be in breach of consumer law.
In response to previous threats to UCL rent strikes, which the university was forced to drop before making concessions to the campaign, they said:
“We consider that terms that allow the university to withhold graduation or progression, or otherwise exclude student from tuition for non-payment of ancillary services (such as accommodation or childcare), in a blanket fashion and regardless of the circumstances, are potentially unfair, and the use of such terms and practices may amount to unfair commercial practices.”
Accommodation is considered unrelated to a student’s academic career, and complaints over one should not lead to sanctions within the other.
There isn’t a rent strike where I am. How can I get involved?
Taking part in a rent strike is not the only way to be involved in housing activism.
If there is a rent strike at your university and you are unable to take part – perhaps you don’t live in halls or have already paid your rent – there is nothing to stop you from signing petitions, attending protests, or helping rent strike organisers.
You might also be able to organise protest actions or lobby for better conditions with local activist groups that aren’t specific to students.
If there is no active housing campaign at your university and you are specifically interested in student rents and living conditions, you might be able to organise petitions or meetings with university management to begin to discuss how things could improve. If you would like to lay the groundwork for organising a rent strike at your university, it might be advisable to get in touch with the national campaign group.