Wednesday 21-09-2016 - 16:56
Everybody deserves a decent place to live. Shelter, comfort, safety, and rest are crucial for anyone – not least students in search of intellectual discovery, personal growth, and collective reflection. Yet, as we all know, UK housing – including student accommodation – is in crisis.
The list of problems we have with housing seems endless. Lack of affordable homes, absence of construction of social housing, and rapacious landlords are just some of the things which we have all become used to. Far too many of us are forced to live in overcrowded, run down spaces, for outrageous amounts of rent.
Little is different for students. In halls, the choice is increasingly between roughly affordable but often squalid housing on the one hand, and outrageously priced “luxury” housing on the other. All over the country, a key aspect of the marketisation of higher education has been the rapid growth of extremely expensive residences geared up for the benefit of big business, not the students who live there.
On average, the price of UK student accommodation has reached a frankly unbelievable 95 per cent of the maximum student loan. Our research at NUS has found that there is an average £8,000 shortfall between living costs and income from loans and grants for students. This is pushing students into working more hours or getting deeper into debt. Or both at the same time.
The situation has hit breaking point. Students have begun fighting back, challenging university managers on inadequate, inaccessible and overpriced housing. Last year we saw new forms of student action against the exclusionary university, geared towards the rich and the privileged. Students engaged in rent strikes, refusing to continue to acquiesce passively while the situation gets worse.
The strikes were effective. At UCL, students won more than £1 million worth of concessions from management, including grants for students from poorer backgrounds and rent freezes.
These campaigns are going national. Earlier this week, I had the immense pleasure of speaking at the national rent-strike weekender held in Bermondsey. Over 100 students met over three days to discuss the current reality for housing – both on and off campus – to share tactics and plan coordinated action for the year to come.
The debates ranged from gentrification and social housing to migration and the rise of overpriced housing in universities. The campaign calls for students across the country to take part in a national wave of rent strikes. Students were looking forward to taking this idea back to their campuses and start building. I was personally delighted to hear the organsiers of the conference talking about forming a rent strike block on the NUS-UCU national demonstration on November 19.
At NUS, we’re putting our money where our mouth is. Affordable and adequate housing is one of the 8 demands of this year's priority campaign ‘Liberate Education’. We have also passed policy to support rent strikes in universities up and down the country in order to encourage the growth of such actions.
I was elected to develop regional networks and re-energise grassroots action in our union. That’s why we're holding regional meetings for students and union officers each term, where issues and campaigns can be discussed between students and officers across higher and further education institutions in the same region.
It was Frederick Douglas who said that 'Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will'. With that in mind, NUS will amplify the efforts and demands of existing campaigns. And after our regional meetings, we hope that hundreds of officers and students struggling with overpriced housing will start planning their own campaigns and strikes for the year ahead.
Students starting university this year are faced with extortionate costs – both to study and to live. They are having to work extra hours to afford to survive, rather than focussing on the opportunities that higher education brings. These growing pressures cause unprecedented stress levels, pulling students between the demands of study and work. This is one factor contributing to the record number of students struggling with mental health problems – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Fighting for decent affordable housing is a crucial aspect of improving students’ lives. That’s why we will support student rent strikes across the country, and continue to raise the issue nationally. We will provide advice to students facing housing difficulties and support those who want to take action. And by doing all of this, we will put student housing at the heart of our vision for a free, accessible and liberated education.
Learn more about the rent strikes and how you can get involved at the regional networking events taking place across the country this October.