The Rent Strike as a Free Education Struggle


A workshop at the Rent Strike Weekender, credit: Anabel Bennett Lopez

On 16th-19th September students and housing activists held a weekend of workshops and organising meetings about organising and winning rent strikes in university accommodation. One of our members, who was there, has written this piece arguing that the movement to cut rents for university-run accommodation is a vital struggle for the free education movement.

Students at UCL recently won over £1m in compensation and rent cuts after an indefinite rent strike involving over 1000 students. This inspired the setting up of ‘Cut the Rent’ groups at other universities, including a rent strike at Goldsmiths University. This tactic has inspired many student activists, won NUS backing, and provides a new tactic for the student movement in the context of rising rents and a generalised housing crisis.

Rent striking in university halls is a means of struggling for free education; the conversion of universities into profiteering landlords is inseparable from the agenda of marketization. As a statement from the recent Rent Strike Weekender, on behalf of students attending from over 25 universities, put it:

Rent from student accommodation is a powerful enabler of the continued marketisation of higher education, and profits from student rents are integral to the new financial strategy of universities. The tuition fee hike to £9000 was lobbied for by university Vice-Chancellors across the country, with full understanding of the changes it would bring to the funding structure of universities, and of the consequences it would have on the lives of students.

Universities make profits off their students; they regularly run multi-million pound surpluses, charge extortionate fees, and rent out accommodation at inflated prices. What does it mean to say that a supposedly ‘public’ university – with no shareholders or owner – makes a profit?

A lot of the objections when we talk about universities profiting off students, i.e. running surpluses in the millions of pounds, go something like ‘well it’s not really like private profit, it is all reinvested into the institution.’ However, this misses the point. If a university makes £1m ‘surplus’ by renting student accommodation at inflated prices then that amounts to a secondary tuition fee; without this profiteering they would need another funding stream to fill that gap. Universities should be fully publicly funded by taxing the rich and capital and that means not just abolishing tuition fees but also not having a funding model that requires business deals and landlordism to cover gaps in the budget. Insofar as universities derive their money from profit-making they will act like any other business; endless accumulation and seeking the most profitable opportunities will come before workers’ rights, democracy, and the needs of students. Why build a new library when you can build a shiny new conference centre? Why provide cheap accommodation which facilitates accessibility of education to working class students when you can make a quick buck with luxury accommodation and a richer student body?

Who do university profits enrich? Apart from overpaid managers and the corporations that make deals with universities, the indirect effect of funding universities privately rather than publicly is the same as any cut in public services – the capitalist class, whose profits in part derive from living in a society with a higher education system (and other public services), get to keep a greater proportion of those profits. Capital also benefits from the kind of student generated by the corporate university under austerity – a precarious and thus exploitable workforce.

Profit in the university sector is antithetical to free education. The initial act of refusing to pay rent is intended to introduce a crisis of the university’s cash-flow; that’s largely what the tactic of a strike is for and why it works. However, beyond that, a wave of successful rent strikes which force universities to provide housing at or below cost price – and thus to abolish the hall rent as secondary tuition fee – could cause a longer term funding crisis requiring universities to fill the gap by either demanding accelerated fee rises (perhaps linked to TEF) or more government funding. This would provide an opening for the free education movement by converting a privatised and individualised node of exploitation to a public policy decision. This analysis also helps us make the case for generalised student rent strikes even where there aren’t particularly acute grievances about quality like at UCL.

The rent is too high wherever universities make a surplus from their accommodation and we should be ready to articulate this defence of rent strikes as a component of the fight for free, accessible, and liberated education.