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‘Cut the Rent’ and its striking flaws

Image: a dark image of the Radcliffe Camera.

Students should not be paying rent for rooms they’re not residing in. This is not particularly controversial. Students have returned to take up residency agreements and have been met with a lowered quality in facilities. This seems to be overall accepted. A rent strike is surely the answer! 

Not quite. 

A rent strike is a snappy title that evokes imagery of noble protest, and yet when considered more closely can aid in perpetuating the rift of socioeconomic inequality. 

A rent strike means that the tools of protest are, rather than placards or chants, the figures in one’s back account. You might think that striking – the withholding of money in this case – levels out the issue of wealth disparity, but it brings about its own problems. 

Students who come from families which are financially comfortable will not be putting as much at risk when rent striking, whereas poorer students will most likely already have a relationship of dependency to their college. In the first term of my first year I was summoned by the Senior Dean of my college (who has since moved to a new position) and was told that if I continued to misbehave I would have my scholarship taken away. This sort of ultimatum could easily be levelled at those that choose to rent strike and is an extra risk wealthier students won’t have to consider. 

If the rent strike fails, some students will simply be able to pay their outstanding debt off, whereas poorer students’ living situation is drastically affected.

Students are also not all in the same boat when it comes to the ease at which they can take part in the strike. If the rent strike fails, some students will simply be able to pay their outstanding debt off, whereas poorer students’ living situation is drastically affected. Many students are no in financial danger when considering to strike, and so can casually and quickly decide to pay their accommodation costs. This is far more likely if they feel not many students will be striking, and as I will go on to explain this seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are general misgivings about financial forms of protest, however the University of Oxford is, simply put, its own establishment. A ‘one size fits all’ portrayal of universities is both false and naive.

The college system is not something to be underestimated. As someone who has tried to unite the colleges on the social justice matter of anti-racism, I know that it is far harder than one can reasonably expect. Colleges are separate legal identities and no college has jurisdiction over the charges of another. Therefore 200 students striking in St John’s College would not be able to support or show solidarity with the 5 striking in Lady Margaret Hall, for example. This does not necessarily mean that inter-collegiate solidarity is impossible, but that college-by-college evaluation is necessary when garnering support. Therefore the Junior Common Room presidents would be well placed to explain what the situation for their college is, and how lowering rent could be achieved if there is a demand for it. 

Those [social] issues deserve to be expanded upon, explained, and fought for. Not thrown in as an afterthought.

Perhaps the most detrimental factor when considering the Oxford rent strike campaign is its amalgamation of other social justice issues. The expression “Cops off campus” stood out to me when reading the demands. ‘Cops’ is a word usually used in America to describe the police. It has most recently been used in the abbreviation ‘ACAB’ (‘All Cops Are Bastards’) and is undoubtedly a word loaded with the connotations of police brutality. What is it doing in a list of demands anchored by the mission of rent striking? The demands are loaded with buzzwords and issues that rightly deserve attention; however, if the priority is the reduction of accomodation fees, their involvement dilutes that aim. Those issues deserve to be expanded upon, explained, and fought for. Not thrown in as an afterthought.

This conflation does not stop there. It is necessary to ask whether rent is to be targeted or tuition fees. If students are in college accommodation their rent consists of facilities such as hall and library services, which may be affected by the pandemic, and as such a reduction is somewhat logical. However, departmental hour reduction is more within the remit of the university as a whole and so surely is a problem of tuition fees. 

The pandemic has taken many of our university experiences and left us feeling robbed. It is an egregious injustice that such an experience seems to have the same financial cost. I think it is wrong and I think something should be done. But I cannot support a rent strike that seems to have gotten it so wrong.

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