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Rent Strike Cambridge undergraduates at Clare College continue campaign

The rent strike by Clare College students now involves 40 students withholding their rent since May 7 in the face of challenges from college authorities.

Visitors walk through the main gate of Clare College, Cambridge
Visitors walk through the main gate of Clare College, Cambridge

The students are part of the Rent Strike Cambridge campaign which launched in November 2020. Rent Strike Cambridge is part of a national movement which has seen successful rent strikes across the country this year at Manchester University, Bristol University (both achieving 30 per cent rent reductions), Sussex Universities (10 per cent reductions) and University College London (capped rent and increases in bursaries), among others.

As well as demanding a 30 per cent rent reduction for the 2020/21 academic year, and a permanent rent reduction of 10 per cent, the Clare College strikers are also campaigning to improve conditions for staff and part-time workers at the college. On Saturday (June 5), the strikers staged a protest outside Clare College, demanding “an end to the prioritisation of profit over the welfare of students and staff”.

“Staff were not meaningfully consulted on the college’s pandemic response,” Rent Strike Clare said in a statement, “and were even denied several direct requests to speak on these matters at finance committee meetings due to their supposed ‘conflict of interest’. Cleaning staff were made to continue working in communal spaces until December 11 despite the infection rates increasing and peaking in mid-November and a second national lockdown coming in on November 5... There is a stark disparity in the way it has treated, and listened, to low-paid versus high-paid staff during and before the pandemic.”

Rent strikes at Cambridge had been planned for January but due to the lockdown and many students not being allowed to return to term-time accommodation, they were postponed to Easter term. Students at eight other Cambridge colleges, including Jesus, Robinson, Murray Edwards, and Newnham had been planning to go on rent strike this term, before colleges “moved rent deadlines and threatened disciplinary action to prevent strikes from going ahead”.

Undergraduates describe the challenge thus: “Three days after the strike commenced, Clare College threatened to revoke the accommodation of the 40 students who are striking, which was met with opposition from groups within Clare and across the university. Since then, college management have attempted to fine rent striking students and have ignored multiple requests from Clare Rent Strike to negotiate on their demands. The college currently maintains its position that striking students will have their accommodation revoked for the next academic year, despite strong criticism from Cambridge Students’ Union, Cambridge UCU and the Union of Clare Students.”

Cambrige has been no stranger to the rent strikes which have affected many UK universities since the pandemic started
Cambrige has been no stranger to the rent strikes which have affected many UK universities since the pandemic started

Prior to this action, more than 700 Cambridge students had signed up to withhold more than £1million in rent, in one of the largest mass student mobilisations at Cambridge University in decades.

Clare Rent Strikers state: “Since the start of the pandemic we’ve had international students being charged £300 to quarantine for two weeks, staff wages cut in real terms, and students paying extortionate rent without access to in-person teaching or college facilities. Disabled students shouldn’t be charged high rent because of their disability. Nobody should be paying £180 a week for a room with damp and mold. Since March 2020, the college’s endowment has grown by 12.6 per cent to a valuation of £144.3million and yet they still try to justify increasing rent above inflation. Clare College cares more about profit than it does about the welfare of staff and students.”

The concern about disability costs relates to the charge of “an accessible room in Clare, eg X13, which costs £1,674 a term, meaning a disabled student would have to pay a total of £222 to access accommodation they need”. This, the strikers suggest, is in contravention of Cambridge University’s Disability Resource Centre stating that authorities “will not be permitted to charge for any additional costs which are disability-related”.

In an unusual move, individual strikers have shared their thoughts on the impasse.

A Rent Strike Cambridge protest. Picture: Milo Layton
A Rent Strike Cambridge protest. Picture: Milo Layton

Oscar Simms, a second year undergraduate at Clare College, said: “We are tired of being ignored by senior management, and their failure to meaningfully engage with our entirely reasonable and justifiable demands proves that rent striking was the only option left. We refuse to be intimidated by college’s threats, and will continue to demand justice for students and workers.”

Daisy Thomas, a second year undergraduate at Robinson College, commented: “The fact that a rent strike went ahead at Clare in the face of threats from the college shows the level of anger that Clare students have been feeling as a result of the college’s treatment of both students and workers.” Cambridge Students’ Union said: “The Cambridge SU Sabbatical Team stand in opposition to Clare College threatening their students currently on rent strike. We urge the college to begin negotiating with students and commit to no disciplinary action for those participating in the action.”

The University of Cambridge, Clare College and the Disability Resource Centre were contacted for the purposes of this article.

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