The average UCL rent is far above the maintenance loan given to students, even when the London weighting is added. If students cannot afford to even pay their first-year accommodation from the loan, which is often for 38 weeks rather than the full 52 weeks, they will have to pay the following two years, and economically disadvantaged students are going to be further put off applying. UCL and other London universities don’t have the capacity to provide accommodation for all the years of a student’s degree but normally allocate Halls of Residence places to first-years so they can meet other students and find housemates for the following years. However, as they allocate the places, students cannot negotiate rent and no choice but to accept the place or face finding accommodation on their own, in a large and unfamiliar city.
The demo is part of an on-going battle that has lasted all year, sparked by building works at two of the UCL-owned halls of residence, Hawkridge House and Campbell House. Hawkridge House was damaged by a storm in 2013 and had been scheduled for building works that were due to end in January 2015; Campbell House residents have been affected by demolition of premise next door.
Students were notified of the building work when they were offered a place; however, they were informed that if they turned it down there would be no alternative offer of accommodation, leaving them no choice. To add insult to injury, the weekly rent was raised by 7% (£9 a week) despite these onerous building works being conducting for most of the year. The problem came when these overran and severely disrupted the students’ revision period for their exams.
Students said that the hammering and drilling made revision impossible and also complained over an invasion of privacy from the builders as well as noise and dust triggering migraines and breathing problems. Evidence was found that noise reached levels of 90 decibels, equivalent to a motorway and the halls developed a vermin infestation.
Sleep-deprived and stressed, students took action to prevent their hard work over the year being ruined as they could not revise and threatened to withhold rent. This led to the university stopping building works over the exam period. Since then, UCL has offered compensation equivalent to 1 week’s rent to every student, which has been rejected as a derisory amount given how much disruption was caused.
With exams over, the compensation dispute continues as does the rent strike. Yet UCL have taken a heavy handed response, sending letters to the striking students threatening to bar them from graduating or re-enrolling next year until they have paid up. These practices have been found by Office of Fair Trading to be unfair under consumer law. UCL has also been accused by David Dahlborn, the UCL Union Halls Accommodation Representative, of violating the Student Accommodation Code and reported to Universities UK.
Our friends at NUS have said they will work with UCLU and the students of Campbell and Hawkridge Houses if the threats are not withdrawn. We hope the students will stand up against bad landlordism and continue to strike until they receive fair compensation from UCL.
For more information on the wider-UCL campaign over rising rents forcing students into debt, please click here.