Students in the UK prepare for a new wave of rent strikes

  • October 17, 2016

Education & Emancipation

Any movement tactic proposed today needs to suit a precarious student population that’s working more hours, carrying more debt and paying more for housing.

The successful rent strike at University College London earlier this year broke the stale pattern of conflict between university managers and students. It showed how the rent strike tactic offers students in the UK opportunities to shut down higher education and how to gain the upper hand. Now a national network has been established with members from 25 campuses, and it’s calling for a co-ordinated wave of rent strikes in university halls. If they are successful in taking on exploitative university managements, then the rent strike tactic could begin to generalize throughout higher education and perhaps further abroad.

The student movement in the UK is always assessed in light of the 2010 Milbank occupation. The demolition of the Conservative party HQ signalled the start of an explosive year of social conflict that witnessed the rise of the anti-austerity movement and the August riots of 2011. But the new students arriving on campus this year, who will form the base of any successful rent strike movement, were just 12 years old when the movement of 2010 was igniting. Since then, a combination of work, housing, debt, a mental health epidemic and the consumer-mindset introduced by tuition fees have collectively changed what is politically possible within the student movement.

Where are the protests?

The types of political mobilization that were politically effective in 2010 have been producing diminishing returns ever since. The free education block within the movement has decisively won the argument, but despite controlling huge infrastructures like the National Union of Students it lacks the grassroots base and tactics to produce sufficient leverage for its demands. It hasn’t been able to keep up with the changing reality of the lives of students.

A constant frantic cycle of occupations and demonstrations undertaken by an increasingly isolated activist hardcore has been unable to conceal that every attempt to challenge the direction of higher education policy loses power. Local victories are still possible, but on a national level defeat has followed defeat. The material resources required to “do politics” in the way demanded by the activist-driven model of 2010 have become scarce and the power of grassroots networks based on local campaign groups has collapsed.

Seventy-seven percent of students now work part- or full-time alongside their studies. Rents went up by 25 percent between 2010 and 2013 and have continued rising since. Debt is soaring — both student debt, increased by the conversion of maintenance grants into loans (further indenting the million poorest students) and the slow rise of tuition fees, and consumer debt, like overdrafts and credit cards. Students now relate to education as a strange combination between a consumer good and a program of intensive job training.

The emancipatory potential of education obviously remains, but it is increasingly marginalized by the dull compulsion of the elusive graduate job. These factors have combined to create an experience of university education that is alienating, anxious and depressing. Seventy-one percent of students have experienced symptoms of mental illness and the number of students seeking mental health support whilst at university has increased by 50 percent in the last five years.

Any tactic proposed by the student movement today needs to suit a student population that’s working more hours, carrying more debt, more mentally ill, and crucially, paying more for housing.

Another type of action

The turn towards the rent strike is, therefore, an indication that the student movement is recomposing itself. This recomposition is a necessary response to the deterioration of student life that has slowly but inevitably resulted from the marketization of education. Through this process of adaptation, a blueprint is emerging that could potentially offer far greater leverage than the 2010 model of linear escalation through demonstrations towards occupations.

But this relation to a new kind of student is not the only value of the rent strike. It also applies its leverage at one of the most vulnerable points in the university system. Expansion has been a central part of the growth strategy of the entire higher education sector since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees signaled the transition towards a marketized sector.

Capital expansion projects have been begun at a frantic pace, pressed by the future possibility (and threat) of competition for students in a marketplace defined by uncapped fees and uncapped student numbers. University spending on capital development in the first half of 2016 jumped a massive 43 percent on the already high expenses of 2015. This has been both an attempt to preemptively grow student numbers and also to offer a more capital-intensive “student experience” to the consumer.

The government made clear in its Higher Education White Paper (now on its way to becoming the Higher Education Bill) that “market exit” will be provided for, and universities will not be supported for their public value if they cannot support themselves through their commercial value. In a sector as crowded and unused to competition such as UK higher education, it’s hardly surprising that this change of circumstances has created total panic.

The result of this panic is that exploitation has been intensified across the sector. Academic staff are made precarious, support staff are outsourced, international students are rinsed, and, crucially, on-campus accommodation is turned from a necessary service into a revenue stream, with skyrocketing rents treated as secondary tuition fees. The rent strike takes aim squarely at this form of exploitation, which is so closely tied to university growth models, and attempts to totally block it.

A rent strike initiates a period of warfare between students and management, focusing specifically on the size of the surplus that can possibly be extracted from accommodation and the regularity/reliability of its extraction. The financialization of this revenue stream, as seen at UCL, also lends additional pressure to this conflict. They took out the biggest bank loan in British university history, £280m from the European Investment Bank, in order to help finance a £1.25 billion expansion project in East London. The rent strike hit exactly this nerve, forcing UCL’s provost to warn that there was only “42 days of expenditure in the bank” and that UCL was in a “barely financially sustainable position.”

When students strike, they endanger the surplus. In our current context, this threat has immense power. Co-ordinated national rent strikes could turn dangerously rapid expansion into a sector-wide financial crisis. As with any strike, by refusing to be exploited the rent strikers reveal that their exploitation is the basis of business-as-usual.

Callum Cant

Callum Cant is a libertarian communist and member of Plan C based in Brighton. He has contributed to Novara Media, The Independent and Open Democracy.

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