David Dahlborn, UCLU Halls Accommodation Representative, explains some of UCL’s spending habits
With UCL Accommodation poised to hike its rent charges to record highs, we students – bearing the burden of the ever-increasing cost of living in halls – are more justified than ever to demand and take action for effective rent cuts. That’s why I put forward a resolution to the UCLU General Assembly for the union to take a firm line against UCL’s rent increases. If we don’t demand that UCL cut the rent now, this university will soon become utterly unaffordable for anybody without affluent parents or a generous bursary. But this won’t get us far.
I’d argue that the currently impending crisis won’t improve unless we go further in our demands and propose radically different way of running our halls. As UCL hauls in a total of around £25 million from our rent this year for halls that cost £23.5 million to run, while simultaneously investing £270 million to build a new campus in Stratford, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t ‘how can UCL accommodation be made more affordable?’, but ‘why isn’t UCL accommodation run sustainably and in a way that doesn’t exploit or disenfranchise students in the first place?’
Let’s begin by looking at the facts.
Many rooms at UCL are so expensive that they’re simply unaffordable for anybody trying to live off SFE money. This comes as no surprise considering that rent for single rooms at UCL has increased by 30% since 2009. Since the introduction of the current student loans regime in 2012 our maximum yearly maintenance loans and grants have increased by 1% annually. Meanwhile, UCL raised our rent every year by over 4%.
A single room Campbell House that cost £159.25pw in 2013/14 costs £168.70pw today, and is likely to increase to around £176pw next year. In real terms, any student renting a UCL room pays more of their income towards the rent this year, proportionality, than they would’ve paid last year. Even though the quality of our rooms hasn’t improved and running costs don’t even rival UCL’s income from rent. Frankly, UCL is ripping us off and pricing students out of halls. Why?
If you ask the UCL bosses and policy makers, they maintain that UCL halls “remain competitive for Central London living” and the official line of UCL accommodation is to “provide agreeable accommodation in a friendly environment at affordable prices”. Although it’s true that UCL still offers lower prices than private landlords, this is of little comfort when their prices turn out to be out of bounds for our loans and grants. In my view, something completely different is going on, and it’s visible in UCL’s accounts.
In 2012, the annual surplus made by UCL on what it calls “Residences and Catering” rose by almost 50% to £7.3 million. Since then, then annual surplus has increased, bringing yet more cash into UCL’s coffers. Two other things happened the same year; tuition fees tripled to £9,000 and UCL Estates ran the first of its attempts to launch a massive program of expansion in Stratford. This plan which involved bulldozing 700 peoples’ homes was stopped by protests from students and residents and has now become “UCL East”. UCL’s initial bid, however, cost a billion pounds.
Amazingly, this colossal sum was pledged despite a 2010 report which predicted that UCL would fall £22 million short of its budget target for 2014-15, unless drastic action was taken. This was despite radical increases in student numbers (which coincidently caused the lack of space on campus that students experience today). Put simply, from around 2010 policy decisions by UCL bosses were digging huge holes into the university’s budgets. Now, it turns out, these holes are being filled by our rent and tuition fees.
UCL isn’t a business, yet it’s investing like never before. The bosses are possessed by ideas of expensive expansions; one of the few ways UCL can rapidly bolster its size, prestige and university league table rankings – the only hard currency in the world of university funding these days. As the neoliberal policies of past and present governments have made university funding more dependent on what colleges “produce” rather than what society needs, the UCL bosses have been pushed into a vicious spiral of investment and expansion. Cash-strapped freshers are footing the bill.
Thus, identifying two root causes – UCL policy and HE cuts – I can propose two sustainable solutions; one national, the other local. Firstly, education must become a right, not a privilege. We’ve all heard the argument for free education before, but I’ll reiterate one point: once education becomes a privilege it’s a slippery slope before it becomes the exclusive domain of the superrich. UCL is currently tilting at the top of this slope.
Secondly, students and university workers need to take over and run halls of residence themselves. Policy-makers and bosses got us into this mess and certainly won’t get us out. Furthermore, the people who know best how to run halls are the people who live and who work there. If our money went straight towards the running costs and if staff and students, rather than bosses, addressed residents’ needs communally, we’d keep more cash in our own pockets, and halls would be more cost-efficient.
Local issues concerning maintenance could be dealt with directly and the transparency granted by student and staff involvement would guarantee less waste and fewer shoddy refurbishments. Staff could also benefit from wages set by workforce consensus rather than business-focused managers. Cleaners would be included in the halls community and remunerated according to their needs rather than being forced below the poverty line. With democratically agreed terms and conditions workers at UCL would be able to do a better job, and students’ rent wouldn’t be spent on investments on the other side of London.
This isn’t a solution within the immediate interests of rent-hiking bosses. Their survival depends on being able to extract more money from us. Our survival, therefore, depends upon the tenacity of our demands. Protesting in meetings and demos will help, and rent strikes backed by local, democratic grassroots campaigns for surplus-free halls will go even further. The key word is organisation. Were, say, a hundred students to refuse to pay rent until charges were cut, UCL would, sooner or later, have to give in and start negotiating.
This is why I have called a campus-wide meeting where we can organise this campaign to save UCL from becoming a soulless and unaffordable profit-making machine. The meeting will take place in Bentham SB01 Seminar Room 3 at 6pm, Thursday 29th January.
I hope to see you there!
UCL’s statistics for “Residences and Catering”, according to its annual reports 2009-14
£17,511,000 – 2009
£19,327,000 – 2010
£22,763,000 – 2011
£22,130,000 – 2012
£21,654,000 – 2013
£23,564,000 – 2014
£22,836,000 – 2009
£23,185,000 – 2010
£26,442,000 – 2011
£29,428,000 – 2012
£29,713,000 – 2013
£33,919,000 – 2014
Featured image credit: Lord Harris at English Wikipedia