(UCL, Cut the Rent via Facebook)

University insists its actions are 'standard procedure' to those who withhold rent, as students prepare to disrupt open day

Student rent strikers at University College London (UCL) have criticised the institution for “undermining” their campaign a day after they say they were fined a total of £25,000 for late payments.

Around 1,000 students are currently withholding rent payments from the university as they continue to protest against “the high cost of accommodation.”

Having entered negotiations with student representatives on 10 June - with another scheduled for Tuesday - UCL’s Cut the Rent (UCL-CTR) campaigners say a £25 fine has been imposed on every student taking part in the rent strike.

Criticising the move in a statement on Tuesday, UCL-CTR said: “We urge rent strikers to not be intimidated by these undiplomatic tactics used by UCL at this crucial time of progressive negotiation. We advise rent strikers continue to withhold their rent, with the addition of the fine, at least until negotiations have reached a satisfactory conclusion.” 

According to the campaigners, the total amount of rent now being withheld from UCL is estimated to be at just over £1 million.

UCL-CTR has also announced plans to disrupt UCL’s open day on 18 June where they say demonstrators plan to “issue an ultimatum,” adding: “If UCL doesn’t offer the strikers significant rent cuts, we’ll cut the rent ourselves.” Strikers say they will do this by paying just 60 per cent of their rent, therefore, enforcing the 40 per cent cut they have been demanding since January.

Describing how “the stakes have been raised” in recent weeks, strikers say UCL also sent out an email “threatening” all students with debt collection for the outstanding rent withheld due to participation on the rent strike, saying the university is “refusing” students access to the guarantor scheme.

A UCL spokesperson told the Independent the university has issued a number of accommodation fee reminders throughout this academic year, giving students “a substantial amount of time” to pay their accommodation fees. In a statement, the spokesperson added: “UCL recognised chasing outstanding accommodation debt during the stressful exam period was not appropriate, and so further delayed issuing reminder letters until this period was over.

“The charging of the £25 late payment fee is standard procedure. UCL has given students significant opportunity to settle outstanding balances without applying the late payment fee to their accommodation accounts. 

“In the letter sent to students with outstanding accommodation balances, UCL made it clear that, if payment was not received by 12 June, then a late payment charge of £25 would be added to individuals’ outstanding balance.

“As UCL has delayed adding the late payment fee so far this academic year, and given prior warning this fee would be added in the letter sent on 2 June, we are not prepared to waive this late payment fee.”

Regarding the guarantor scheme, UCL said that, since 2001, it has offered to stand as guarantor to its students when they move into private accommodation, and said: “Not all universities offer such a scheme. In common with other institutions who run such a scheme, we only offer it to students with no outstanding accommodation debts. There would be no sense in standing as guarantor for students on rent strike.”

Reflecting on one point that keeps resurfacing - the 40 per cent rent cut demand - UCL said it would be incurring “a huge loss” on accommodation if that measure were to be introduced. The spokesperson said: “As we have said before, if we cannot break even on accommodation logically, we would no longer provide it.”

The spokesperson also said that to describe its actions as “intimidation” is “bizarre,” adding: “The rent strike began in January, and we are now in June. It’s hard to imagine a less combative stance than UCL’s has been in recovering the rent it is owed.”