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By Ruth Day and Pascal van Liempt, Bristol, Cut the Rent
The cost of university halls is rising at shocking rates, despite decreasing standards. We need a rent strike to encourage a change.
As a rite of passage into university, freshers are sold the merits of living in university halls. Places of socialising, wild nights out, places to study, friends for life, and a support system as they transition into the difficult and, in many ways, alien university lifestyle. But there is a sinister undercurrent to their living situation. They are being exploited by the University, which charges extortionate rent to people who, in the vast majority of cases, have no other option.
Rents in University halls have risen by almost 90 per cent over the last 10 years, compared to rents in the private sector only rising by 12.8 per cent over the same period (statistics for the whole of the UK from ONS).
Even only considering the university sector, the average halls rent at Bristol University is £30pw over the average rent in halls nationally. Most worryingly, only 1 per cent of the beds in Bristol University accommodation costs below half the maximum maintenance loan, meaning that most students cannot afford to live on what is, for many of them, their only source of income.
Yet a number of halls have not been refurbished over the last 10 years, meaning that students are living in the same conditions that students were 10 years ago, but are paying nearly double in rent.
Many halls are in poor condition. Just this year alone we have heard stories of flooding in Hiatt Baker and New Bridewell, mouldy rooms in Stoke Bishop halls and rats chewing through cables in Winkworth. Most importantly, we have taken note of the worrying statistic that 10 University-owned residences have asbestos in the walls.
We cannot stand by while the University demands over half of every students’ income simply to live, whilst making us pay for halls that are substandard and, in some cases, actively unsafe.
Not only are these high rents financially detrimental to many students, they also bring along a high mental burden.
A BBC student survey last year found that 45 per cent of students in the UK found that the stress of high rent negatively affected their mental health. Bristol University, an institution that has made a very recent commitment to safeguard student mental health and even, in their recently published Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, a commitment to “actively seek opportunities to reduce the cost of living for students”, should not be contributing to worsening student mental health.
The University has a duty of care over its students, to ensure that we are supported in every aspect of university life.
Following from this, since high rent and unaffordable accommodation are massively affecting student wellbeing, the University has a duty to change this in any way possible. Nobody should have to scrape by just to be able to pay rent whilst studying full time. This financial, and often mental, burden should absolutely not be levelled at first years who feel as though they have no other living option. Everyone should have access to a safe and affordable place to live, and the University is letting us all down.
Bristol, Cut the Rent have been campaigning against this grotesque exploitation of students for the last three years.
In spite of this, the University has been consistently ignoring our demands for fair rent and affordable accommodation. This term, we handed in a 600+ strong petition to the University demanding lower rents, an increase in accommodation bursaries, more provision for emergency housing of students and more transparency regarding the University’s rent budget. Not only did the University respond to us late, but when they responded, it was with excuses for why the rent could not be lowered - instead of with a concrete answer (or even a solution) to the problems students are facing.
So, as a last resort action, we have called a rent strike in all University-owned halls (i.e. not UNITE residences or New Bridewell/The Courtrooms).This is meant for us to get collective bargaining power as students; we aim to push the University to firstly compensate students currently in halls, and secondly cut halls rent for first year students coming in next year.
The premise of this action is simple - students pledge to withhold their final rent payment, due to be paid at the end of April, if 100 other students join them.
This is because there is safety in numbers, and we are incredibly proud to say we reached this minimum of 100 students; therefore, the rent strike will be going ahead.
We are optimistic about our ability to achieve change through this medium.
Rent striking has proven to be a really successful tactic in various campaigns throughout the history of university activism. In 2016, for example, Goldsmiths, UCL and SOAS students went on a rent strike and won £1.5m in rents cuts and compensation for current students. Just one hall at Sussex University went on strike and won £64,000 in compensation for students living in that hall.
We all need to come together to fight for affordable halls for all. The larger the strike, the stronger we are. Tell your friends who do live in halls about the strike, and help us build the campaign. With all of us on board, we can create a better university and ensure that all of us feel safe and supported during our time at the University of Bristol.
Featured image: Facebook / Bristol, Cut the Rent
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