Cambridge University students at Jesus and Robinson Colleges call off rent strikes
Rent strikes by two University of Cambridge colleges – Jesus and Robinson – were called off today, just hours before the rent was due for the Easter term.
The confrontation was seeded late last year when 400 students at the university joined the rent strike movement, a national campaign to oblige universities to reduce their rent by 30 per cent in light of the changing pattern of student attendance in the pandemic. (The student rent is around £160 a week, depending on the college.)
Students had pledged to collectively refuse to pay rent until “all colleges implement a 30 per cent rent reduction for the entire 2020/21 academic year and a permanent 10 per cent rent reduction across all colleges”, alongside “a full rent refund for all students forced to pay rent whilst not in college in Michaelmas term.”
In a statement, Robinson College Rent Strike said “our demands still stand”, adding: “The strike is not being called off for lack of support from students; our open letter has the support of 77 students and counting. It is being called off because students who financially struggle against the weight of exorbitant rent are worried about loss of access to bursaries and paying interest. It is being called off because students who’ve been fined over £100 each for Covid infringements are no longer in the financial position to strike. It is being called off because freshers have entered the college at a time of increased rules and harsh discipline, and fear that making their voice heard will lead to punishment.”
A spokesperson for Rent Strike Jesus said: “As College bills have been issued this week and we have not yet reached the strike capacity to ensure student safety, we are sorry to announce that we will not be going ahead with the rent strike at Jesus.”
The strikers needed a certain number of students – understood to be about 40 – to be able to pass the threshold to proceed. While Robinson College easily passed this threshold, Jesus College has not, said the spokesperson, adding: “Whilst we did not reach the critical mass required to strike, we were able to draft a set of progressive policies which will transform Jesus into the caring and inclusive community we know it can be. The college community widely supports our demands, which means that there is still huge potential now for us to come together in solidarity, lobbying for change at every level of our community. Together we can reimagine what college could look like and re-envision Jesus College as a leader in transparency, accountability and student wellbeing.
“We are gutted that we cannot go ahead with the strike, but we know that this is only the start of something much greater. The movement to end the marketisation of education and create an inclusive and democratic community at Jesus College has only just begun. Strikes at Clare and other colleges continue to fight for fairer living and working conditions and we support them all the way on this.”
The Rent Strike Jesus spokesperson added: “This cannot be the end of our campaign. The next few months are crucial ones for Jesus College.”
The university is not charging absent students but is charging those students in student accommodation for the Easter term.
The students at Jesus College only joined the university-wide rent strike last month, but “with their own set of Jesus-specific demands”. Students at the college appear to have entered the fray when college staff offended them by threatening eviction for students who displayed flags and posters in their accommodation, which the protesters say “affirmed its commitment to putting profit before people as it announced staff redundancies”.
A spokesperson for the group told the Cambridge Independent: “The college allowed pride flags to be put up for LGBT+ history month, but have since threatened students who continue to display flags and divestment posters with eviction.”
Students also cited concerns that there will be staff redundancies at Jesus College. A Jesus College spokesperson responded: “Jesus College has faced an unprecedented reduction in income since the beginning of the pandemic and the biggest financial and operational challenge in its recent history. The most significant impact has been on our external conferencing and catering business, which is one of the largest amongst the Colleges, particularly since we opened the West Court facility in 2017. We reinvest the profits from this in our educational and student services. As a charity, the College has a duty to manage its resources prudently and to use its endowment to support its charitable aims of education, learning, research and religion. For over a year we have worked to reduce our costs across the whole College, including only replacing essential roles when people have left. We made use of the furlough scheme and chose to top up salaries so that we paid all our furloughed staff 100 per cent, including casual staff who we expected to engage during 2020.
“We have held off for as long as possible before taking any further action but it has now become clear that we should not expect a return to pre-pandemic income levels in the medium term. At this stage, we are offering a generous voluntary redundancy package to all operational staff members, which is 50 per cent higher than the statutory minimum.”
In addition, the rent strikers seek clarification of the guidelines on the reporting of harrassment and abuse allegations by students. The college had previously stated that students could face disciplinary action if they reported instances of harassment or assault where Covid-19 guidelines were breached in the process. The college did note the “evident distress” caused following a petition responding to the guidelines which drew nearly 1,300 signatures in less than 48 hours.
The Jesus College Rent Strike Campaign had demands ranging from the micro – scrapping the kitchen fixed charge, a £185-per-term contribution towards the cost of the production, staffing and serving of meals – to the macro, eg “increase democracy in the College” and “open the books”.
A Jesus College spokesperson said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, our policy has been that students who are not here due to Government restrictions are not charged any rent. Rents at Cambridge are already lower than many other universities, and we offer short term-time-only contracts to all undergraduates. The last 14 months have been financially challenging for the College but we have continued to invest to make sure that our students are well-supported, for example by bringing in extra people to meet the increased demand for our student counselling service. We have also offered a range of hardship funds to students financially affected by Covid-19.
“We regularly engage with the elected representatives of the student unions – Jesus College Students Union and MCR [graduate group] – across a range of issues affecting students. Students are represented on many College committees, and four students are members of the College Council.”
Rent Strike groups have been set up on social media for colleges including Downing, Girton, Homerton, King’s, Murray Edwards, Homerton, Newnham, Pembroke, Peterhouse, Queen’s, Trinity Hall, St John, Sidney and St Catherine’s.
The Clare College strikers are continuing, with support from the Cambridge Student Union, who said: “The Cambridge SU Sabbatical Team stand in complete opposition to Clare College’s response to 40 students on rent strike at the College. The threats levelled at students, including cutting off graduation celebrations and refusing them access to College accommodation next academic year, reflect a complete refusal on the College’s part to acknowledge the hardship that students and staff have experienced over this academic year.
“This action is a symptom of general anger at the Collegiate University’s response to the pandemic this academic year, whether in forcing students to return to accommodation in Michaelmas or in offsetting their income losses by committing to job cuts for low-paid workers. Instead of issuing threats, we urge Clare College to negotiate with their students over their demands, and bring the rent strike to a swift resolution.”
The national strike by students has resulted in heavy-handed responses by universities including Bristol, where a third party debt collector company, STA International, was hired to collect debts from students who haven’t yet paid their rent for living in halls. Students at four universities in Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham began occupying campus buildings last week in protest over their treatment as “cash cows”.
The University of Cambridge was approached for comment.