A London university has been accused of undertaking a “social cleansing” of the institution as students continue to declare their support to join a rent strike over soaring accommodation costs.
Students at University College London (UCL) have said the increase in student support - from just 150 last month - had allegedly increased by around 500, reflecting campus-wide concerns over rising rent and student dissatisfaction with management’s response.
The team behind the strike, UCL Cut the Rent (CTR), said in a statement on Wednesday: “When UCL runs its accommodation with a 45 per cent profit margin - over £15,779,000 - yet shows flagrant disregard for socially accessible education - whilst seeking to criminalise access to a home for its own students - UCL Cut the Rent asserts this can only accurately be described as a ‘social cleansing’ of the university.”
A UCL spokesperson, however, told the Independent: “UCL does everything it can to keep its rents affordable, despite the challenge of doing so in the heart of central London.”
The spokesperson also refuted claims that UCL is making a “profit” on rent, and said: “That is wrong. We are a not-for-profit institution. The money received in rent is ploughed back into residences.”
The protesters also described how management’s response has been to “patronise and threaten students.” They also expressed discontent with the answers given by Andrew Grainger, director of UCL Estates, at an open meeting in halls on 3 February.
In the full exchange - as seen by the Independent in a full transcript, with accompanying audio - Mr Grainger was asked by a student: “To what extent does the process, does the budget of the average student, come into account when you’re deciding what the rent is? How much of your decision-making is in the cost of infrastructure, cost of services, cost of everything you invest in, versus how much the average student has to pay - and the reality of that?”
Mr Grainger replied: “We don’t set our rents on the basis of the least well-off students.” He also added: “I certainly think there is a case to considerhow we can better target support for the most needy students.”
When discussing the affordability of the city, Mr Grainger said: “Some people simply cannot afford to stay in London.” However, a student who was dissatisfied with this response, asked: “They [prospective students to London] wanted to study here, your response to that is basically, ‘Oh, well, you knew it was London’?” Mr Grainger replied: “Yes. I’m sorry, but some people just simply cannot afford to study in London...and that is the fact of life.”
Also, when asked: “Can you also confirm whether UCL will be taking action to evict students who are not paying as part of a political protest?” Mr Grainger said he would see that as “a last resort,” adding: “I would sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.”
But, when pressed on the issue, Mr Grainger said: “I’m saying, as a last resort, legal action is the process. That’s what happens. I don’t think UCL will be willing to write off a large debt.”
As well as this, CTR said management had stated they will pursue evictions against students and that, in recent emails, added they “intend to withdraw licences to occupy hall residences from strikers.”
In an email from Estates SAMS Debt Chasing to a UCL student seen by the Independent, a credit controller with student residences wrote: “If payment is not made in full by 14 March 2016, you will receive a 28 day notice to quit your accommodation...in accordance with your licence to occupy.
“If the fees are subsequently paid within the 28 days notice period, your licence to occupy will be reinstated.”
Students, therefore, have been demanding a 40 per cent cut, as well as a ‘social rent-setting policy’. With many more supporters now on board with the movement, CTR said this now increases the amount withheld to over £1 million - an amount which could rise as more students decide whether to sign up to the strike or not.
However, at the open meeting, Duncan Palmer, interim head of student accommodation, told students: “We’re here and we’re committed to try to resolve some issues. 40 per cent rent cut? No, absolutely not. We said that, we can’t, because of the duty of care we have, actually, to the institution, so it’s about sitting around the table and, actually, what can we do? What is the driving goal of it? If I wanted an outcome, is 40 per cent reasonable?”
Mr Grainger added: “I think it’s important to understand that people take action and actions result in consequences, ultimately. We see this as a last resort but, if people withhold their rent, which is a very clear, decisive action on the student’s part, then, ultimately, UCL will have to take action - and there will be consequences as a result.”
According to the UCL Halls of Residence website, at Astor College - a catered hall of residence - students are required to pay £270.06 per week for a one-bed flat. However, there are only three of this type of room available.
More typically, though, in the Ramsay Hall of residence, UCL students are required to pay £206.29 per week for a single catered room.
UCL’s accommodation comes out as being one of the most expensive when pitted against some other central London universities’ rooms. A single en-suite in the Woodward Buildings of Imperial College London, for example, costs £126 per week, and King’s College London’s Great Dover Street Apartments £192 a week for an en-suite bedroom.
London School of Economics’ Passfield Hall, however, charges between £184.80 to £209.30 per week for a single room, and £218.75 a week for a single en-suite. Queen Mary, University of London students, on the other hand, typically pay between £123.48 to £165.20 per week for a single room.
CTR’s cause is being supported by the Radical Housing Network - a London-based group which campaigns for housing justice - which said it will defend UCL students against “any attempts at intimidation or eviction, with all of the resources at our disposal.”
A spokesperson for the group added: “As millions now suffer in the housing catastrophe, the Radical Housing Network stands in full support of the inspiring actions of UCL Cut the Rent.”
Since 2009 CTR said UCL had increased the average rent rate by around 56 per cent and, describing how “rent is everyone’s problem,” CTR has made reference to a recent study by Shelter which found 53 per cent of private tenants are struggling to pay rent. CTR added: “In London, 72 per cent of tenants’ total income is spent on rent alone.
“Whilst this dispute may be in the university, the exploitation of tenants by landlords is causing immeasurable suffering to millions. CTR wishes to be clear they stand in full support with wider campaigns for housing justice.”
Justifying the number of students now in support of the Cut the Rent movement, halls accommodation representative with the students’ union, Angus O’Brien, told the Independent CTR has collected the names of over 500 students who have signed up in support of the rent strike.
These student, he explained, are willing to join in the third term in order to pursue the demands of a 40 per cent rent cut and a social rent policy. He continued: “In the interests of students’ privacy, we are unable to publish this list, but we assure you that discontent with UCL management’s initial response is widespread among rent paying students.
“These students were balloted in a similar way to how a trade union would ballot its members preceding the decision to take strike action.”
One of CTR’s supporters, Anabel Bennett, echoed Mr O’Brien’s comments, and said: “The response from residents in UCL halls has been overwhelming. First-year students are now organising themselves on an unprecedented scale. The strike is expanding exponentially as more and more students see the only solution is to take action.”
CTR also said it fully intends to “extend and escalate the dispute until its reasonable and proportionate demands are met,” adding: “We will not be intimidated.”
Addressing the “patronising” claims made against UCL management by CTR in its online statement, the UCL spokesperson told the Independent: “The point is the rents are set across the board, with a range of costs at different levels, so we don’t support poorer students by offering differentiated rent levels to different students at the same residence.
“What we do offer is a substantial programme of scholarships and bursaries to support less well-off students. The point is that we keep rents as low as possible across the board for all students.
“UCL is well aware of the pressures of affordability for London accommodation. No-one here underestimates the seriousness of the issue, but it is one that goes well beyond UCL.”
Read Andrew Grainger’s full statement on the Cut the Rent campaign from 29 January
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