Vice Provost Rex Knight clashes with students as UCL Cut The Rent protests escalate.

The Cheese Grater has already said it once this year (CG 51), but it’s been another rough term for the previously mighty UCL Residences, and given the events of the past month things won’t be looking up for some time. If the optimistic projections of the rent strike’s organisers are to be believed, a movement that began as an isolated response to building works at Campbell House West will next term pit 500 halls residents and over £1 million in withheld rent against College management. While the strike has proved a boon for the resurgent UCL left and slathering Independent hacks alike, College has responded with customary tact and grace: threatening to expel the President of Pi Media, admitting that they don’t consider low-income students when setting inflation-busting rents, and trying to pass off the rent increase as a cut during negotiations with campaigners.

Despite the strikers demanding an immediate 40 per cent cut that some insiders privately admit is unachievable, College’s bungled and mismanaged response to the Cut the Rent campaign has handed momentum – and public sympathy – to a group whose approach to negotiations most recently consisted of an enforced retirement party for their bête noir, Vice Provost (Operations) Rex Knight. The protest, initially billed as a premature victory party for rent strikers in Camden’s Max Rayne House – who have in fact yet to be offered special compensation of the sort awarded to residents of Campbell House West and Hawkridge House – took on a new form after Knight went the same way as blundering Estates boss Andrew “Who Cares If Poor People Can’t Afford To Study In London” Grainger and embarrassed himself in the national press.

Knight, whose career at UCL seems to be dedicated to picking fights, has invigorated campaigners with his determination to do the unthinkable: make Pi Media relevant again. In a surprisingly journalistic turn, its President – high-kicking BNOC Becky Pinnington – earlier obtained confidential documents detailing projected surpluses for halls income from Andrew Grainger’s Outlook calendar, and promised to drip-feed their content Wikileaks-style over the following weeks. Knight with customary warmth, allegedly responded by threatening to dismiss Pinnington and anyone else working on the story, and made them delete any confidential material they had downloaded, before offering an interview in which nobody was allowed to mention the documents themselves. When the Independent, Guardian, National Union of Journalists and the editor-in-chief of The Sun Tony Gallagher promptly offered their support for the #JeSuisPinnington cause and accused UCL of censorship, it proved just how successful Knight’s heavy-handed attempts at crisis management were.

Student protestors carry a burning effigy of Rex Knight around UCL's Bloomsbury campus. There are red flares and a banner calling to evict Rex.
Knight’s burning effigy

Knight’s role in attempting to gag Pi – who have received little if any support from a Union Executive that looks increasingly unwilling to get involved in anything requiring time, effort or independent thought – led to the disconcerting spectacle of dozens of protestors marching from campus and down Tottenham Court Road wearing masks of Knight’s face, before his effigy went up in flames on the Euston Road. While cumbersome chants about UCL’s so-called “censorious overlord” are unlikely to catch on, rent strikers are confident that the battle is theirs for the taking. College has yet to offer anything more than a real terms rent freeze (aka a rise in line with inflation) for the next academic year, but residents on strike and in arrears at some halls have yet to be served with their compulsory notices to quit. With Residences having backed down from an initial threat to fight strikers in the courts, a neat resolution – even one year on from the initial dispute with UCL – seems unlikely anytime soon.

Ifor Ramsey

This article appeared in CG Issue 53.