debt factories with degrees? how your university became your landlord

Universities across the country have started to behave like big businesses, but a movement emerging out of UCL’s Cut the Rent campaign is seeing thousands of students organising a dissent.

by Bertie Brandes
07 December 2016, 11:05am

Students are meant to be penniless. It's all part of the romance, right? Caught between adolescence and adulthood, freshers will always blow their last £5 on two bottles of wine or a beret. No heating? No problem, instead students are happiest snuggled up under three duvets in a bedroom scattered with cigarette butts and Che Guevara posters. Amazingly, that remains the stereotype and it's one you'll hear countless times from old people if you announce over the dinner table that you're heading off to get a 2:2 in something-or-other. Sadly, while it's true that you will be more penniless than ever, the romance is dwindling. Actually, the romance is gone. Six years ago, when student fees for higher education were tripled to £9k per year, universities across the country started to behave like big businesses. While the raising of fees saw mass protest in Parliament Square, the subsequent behaviour of our academic institutions has been rather more hushed up and hidden.

So what have they been up to? Well, transforming themselves in to landlords, basically. As students fought desperately against cripplingly unaffordable fees in 2010, behind closed doors the universities were fighting in favour of them. It turns out there's a big difference in what institutions are allowed to do with private, as opposed to public, money and they were more than eager to make that change. When the higher individual fees came in and government funding was cut, universities started being able to leverage an interminable amount of student debt as guarantee to borrow huge amounts of money and invest it into property. By placing individual students as a buffer between government money, the debt they carry becomes valuable. You may have won your place at university, but university won the lottery with you.

There's a snag in the system, though. Students may well be penniless and swamped with debt, but they remain the most politicised demographic with the least to lose. As universities invest millions into property, sometimes charging over £800 a month for a single room (described as "budget" on the website) students are organising in dissent. A movement emerging out of UCL's Cut the Rent campaign is seeing thousands of students nationwide refusing to play ball. Blossoming out from a small group who started withholding rent due to unsatisfactory conditions in their halls (loud, constant building work from an adjacent university development, excuse me trying to study here) momentum is building behind one simple idea. As Pearl, a second year student at UCL working on the campaign puts it so succinctly: "You just have to not pay".

As universities invest millions into property, sometimes charging over £800 a month for a single room (described as "budget" on the website) students are organising in dissent. 

Ben Beach, a writer and activist within the Radical Housing Network has been working with Rent Strike since last year, a more abstract group composed of many Cut the Rent campaigns across the country. "Universities are essentially turning students in to debt factories" he tells me, "the more students they get, the more debt they can accrue, the more they can fund expansion. Cambridge University is now the largest property developer in Cambridge; Imperial just bought the Imperial West site, which is the former BBC headquarters in White City." Hiding behind the slashed government funds as an excuse, these institutions are pouring more and more borrowed money in to their estates and then raking it back in from the steady stream of students given no other option but to pay up. "While it is true to say that certain things are necessary for the maintenance of the institution, it's taking place in a way that these people designed, argued for and won. They wanted this to happen."

Pearl and Ged, also in his second year at UCL, joined Cut the Rent after meeting with groups during freshers' week. Ged explains how halls are allocated according to what he describes as a "complicated procedure of preference and price range," where preference is prioritised over price range. Students choose certain preferences and are then allocated halls way over the price range they stated, with no option other than to accept. Maintenance loans aren't obliged to cover the amount of rent charged by the university, so students facing extortionate costs may be forced to work multiple jobs alongside their full time study of 35 hours a week. While the students are more squeezed than ever, UCL doesn't have the same problem. "Last year they made £16.5 million on profit from rent alone, and that's not money being re-diverted back in to the maintenance of the halls," Ged tells me, "that was on top." Along with a group of campaigners, Pearl and Ged visit halls spreading information to other students about the importance and effectiveness of a rent strike in their situation. They are gearing up for another, bigger strike in January.

In your first year of university the thought of getting a mark below 55 can be terrifying enough, let alone actively withholding rent from the establishment you worked so hard to get a place at.

One of the key responsibilities for organisers like those two is building a sense of trust among students they hope to welcome into the striking body. In your first year of university the thought of getting a mark below 55 can be terrifying enough, let alone actively withholding rent from the establishment you worked so hard to get a place at. UCL did in fact attempt to punish a student on rent strike, but the Competition and Markets Authority responded swiftly, outlining that all universities, and specifically UCL, must "not threaten or apply academic sanctions on its students because they have a debt for UCL accommodation", and "not threaten or apply academic sanctions because they owe other non-tuition fee debts to the university". It is totally illegal for a university to exclude or expel any student for withholding rent, a factor that makes the striking students' situation so interesting to Ben. "Some people have the privilege to be able to take action where others can't," he points out. "In the private rental sector it would be very ill-advised to tell someone with questionable migration status, young children, or as a single parent to withhold their rent in the hope it might get better; they have a vulnerability, meaning if they were evicted the consequences could be far-reaching. Generally, young students are mobile and crucially have enough friends and resources they can access that if they were evicted, they can get back on their feet quite quickly. If they strike first they're kind of taking it on for everyone who's hit by the housing crisis." Ged agrees: "I've never had a problem with feeling at risk; I was always willing to strike if other people were."

While universities choose to raise rent - by about £5 a week, annually "regardless of market," Ged tells me - their ability to do so without contest is a result of the overall climate in this country. When you hike the fees and rent to such an extortionate level, it becomes a situation where, as Ged describes, "your financial background completely limits your educational possibilities." Ben sees it as a direct attempt by the Conservative ruling body to defang what have traditionally been spaces for political dissent. "Universities are historically places of freethinking and of counter-cultural ideas." But when they become businesses pulling in millions in profit, you can see why they might be keen to alleviate any potential mishaps. "The review that proposed the current model of higher education was conducted by the former head of British Petroleum - quite how much he knows about the higher education sector is obviously debatable," he smirks. "The entire policy never made sense and has now cost more money than it's saved the government - the reason they pressed ahead with it was because the aim was never really about money, this was about fundamentally changing the nature of what universities are." To the students and activists involved with the strikes, withholding rent is a way of both refusing to be exploited by universities and standing up to a government whose goal of privatisation is being steadily realised. "Because of the way universities have been re-structured, rent now plays just as direct a role in enabling the extension and the expansion that tuition fees do. If we can make rent no longer viable as a mechanism of funding for universities it increases the prospect of us being able to push these institutions against the government. It starts to turn the screw."

As hundreds of students attend Rent Strike events and thousands announce plans to strike in spring, the screw continues to turn. Out from tirelessly fought individual campaigns comes the murmur of a wider movement, one that promises to ignite anyone anywhere who is squeezed and suffocated by an insurmountable cycle of rent. While universities might look the same from the outside, a little bigger, a bit shinier perhaps, within it's all change from all sides. One body pushes for property and privatisation and the other for equal opportunities and fair access to education. As winter draws in and spring term awaits, there is only one answer: rent strike now!


Text Bertie Brandes
Original image by John Walker

Rent crisis
the big issue
cut the rent