With significantly fewer students on rent strike this year, how did the student group Cut the Rent achieve such an impressive victory?
Earlier this year, the student group Cut the Rent, CtR, announced that they had won £1.49 million from UCL in rent concessions. Through extensive interviews, The Cheese Grater can now reveal the inside story of how the group built upon its previous successes.
When discussing the strike and negotiations, the word highlighted by Cut the Rent’s HC is “pragmatic”. He stressed the importance of a working relationship with UCL management in securing a positive outcome for the strike.
Although CtR appear to have changed their strategy, replacing burning effigies and loud chants with increasing professionalism, HC has no interest in disowning previous campaigns. “We never threatened [UCL] with disturbing the Open Day, but it was clear to the management that we could.”
And whilst only 200 students (though there are no official figures) may have been striking compared to the 1000 last year, Jack Kershaw, both a member of Fossil Free UCL (the student group pressuring UCL to divest from fossil fuels) and CtR noted that, ultimately, money talks. Kershaw compared the strike to the Fossil Free petition which, despite over a thousand signatures from students and academic staff, as well as the approval of the Engineering Department (always used by management as an excuse to not divest as they argue that the department relies on their ties to these companies), was quickly dismissed by the Provost, Michael Arthur.
HC goes on further to say that “rent striking is the leverage – both financial and reputational”.
CtR’s new-found professionalism is most evident in their efforts this summer. Student representatives from the group have already attended over ten meetings with Head of Accommodation, Duncan Palmer this year. They are attending meetings with Palmer every week this summer to co-ordinate their newly won £600,000 accommodation bursary.
This is a huge contrast to CtR last year which won a £350,000 accommodation bursary but failed to ensure a more inclusive criteria for the bursary by not attending further meetings with UCL management over the summer. This year’s representatives from CtR are now in the process of amending the criteria set by Palmer and co.
Duncan Palmer – Rent Strike Guru
Whereas management have been more open to talks this year, hardened by their previous experiences, Palmer adopted a more hostile attitude towards the strikers themselves.
Although it was always clear that UCL would “chase outstanding rent as per UCL process,” last year no striking student was contacted regarding their rent till after exams as Palmer indignantly insisted that he did not wish to put the student under unnecessary pressure during exam season. This year emails which threatened students with debt collectors were sent as early as March. Quite the U-turn from last year’s benevolent approach!
In fact, one student was contacted by a debt collecting agency directly, although no action was taken against them after they negotiated a payment plan with UCL Accommodation.
In addition, Duncan Palmer appears to have become somewhat of a rent strike guru as he has reportedly been contacted for advice by universities such as Bristol and Sussex where Cut the Rent campaigns have been initiated by their respective student bodies.
Part of Palmer’s new “expert” approach has led him to omit any direct reference to Cut the Rent in UCL’s official press release on this year’s settlement by vaguely alluding to the group as “the student body”.
What was the true victory?
Despite the enthusiasm for the strike outcome, some remain sceptical as to the scale of the victory. There is some confusion as to how much UCL had already pledged to spend on accommodation bursaries (taking into account CtR’s victory last year) for incoming freshers this September.
The true significance of CtR’s victory is the £600,000 rent cut that they will help co-ordinate for the following academic year.
UCL will also sign a charter which CtR hope will be “a way of us being able to hold management to account for a lot of the things they are vague about in terms of duty of care”.
There have been additional questions raised about the support of CtR amongst the student body. While the low strike participation rate can be attributed to the more aggressive approach of UCL management, it is clear that CtR did not gain the same traction amongst first year students as it did last year.
Distracted by internal strife during first term, CtR struggled to speak with a cohesive voice. Older CtR’s members felt ignored and a new Facebook group which only accepted first years and those actively involved in organising, was a significant cause of tension. Additionally, many key second-years later dropped out of the campaign under the stress of their increased workload.
Last year UCL’s cheapest halls were a CtR stronghold, motivated in part by the accommodation’s poor living standards. However one resident in Max Rayne this year was not impressed by CtR’s earlier meetings, stating that the group “failed to make its aims clear”. Many in the Halls did however end up rent striking.
One student in Langton Close also felt that CtR “did not have much of a presence this year”. This feeling could be attributed to the lack of demos held by the group, which members of CtR agreed should have been more of a priority. And while many students feel that student groups like CtR consist of just “flag waving”, members of the group are quick to point out how much effort goes on behind the scenes, such as the huge amounts of time they devote to canvassing and organising meetings.
Regardless, CtR’s success this year can be most attributed to their effective negotiations during Easter. Aided by Shelly Asquith of the NUS, one member of CtR’s negotiating group even lamented that they should have started negotiating a deal sooner.
Effectively UCL management, fearing a repeat of last year’s PR disaster not only engaged more with CtR, but the group itself transformed from its initial incarnation, acted more professionally and made its tactics more effective and palatable to management.
The £600,000 accommodation bursary will be available to any incoming freshers living in UCL or UCL nominated halls struggling to pay rent.
Weronika Strzyżyńska and Jason Murugesu
Artwork: Anna Saunders