“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
If, as Marx says, capital is a vampire, then perhaps private student accommodation providers such as Campus Living Villages (CLV) are the Vampires of the Month, parading around the office with an ostentatious badge to show for it. These vampiric vultures swoop in on the assets and activities of everyday students and public universities and seek to appropriate them for their own ends, feeding off them for sustenance and expansion.
To illustrate this a bit more clearly, consider how students and lecturers are what ultimately define a university, but it’s the senior managers and private accommodation providers that largely get paid for it. Students end up in debt, many deep into their overdrafts, while 61% of Goldsmiths’ academic staff are on insecure contracts, underpaid while overworked. We have been bitten by vampires. Our bank accounts, our mental health, our spirits, are being drained every day. “Rent” is just another name for the vampire’s fangs, dripping in blood. We need to fight back; to drive the wooden stake through the chest of private accomodation.
But before we reach for the pitchforks, let’s take a step back and consider the more concrete issues right now, on the ground, in Goldsmiths’ halls. How are students being exploited?
Firstly, living conditions are awful. The number of outrageous issues I have heard from current tenants as an organiser for Goldsmiths Housing Action has far surpassed my expectations. One tenant in Loring Hall woke up to a dead mouse in their bed; they have not been relocated, despite the distress the incident caused them. Another in Loring, had an oven explode while the students were in the kitchen cooking – it is only by blind luck that no one was hurt, as a glass shard could have easily ended up in someone’s eye. Whilst in Raymont Hall, a resident paying £207 a week woke up to find their ceiling collapsing above them. These are just a select few incidents from the past two months – with issues going back years and years, as the 2016 rent strike at Goldsmiths gave just one indication. They will continue to affront students well into the future, with potentially serious health and safety consequences, unless we do something about it now.
Aside from these more extreme issues, there are the less spectacular but no less important, issues of poor mental health and isolation in halls. Many tenants have spoken in disappointment about the lack of social and communal spaces in halls, the sterility of their interior design, the lack of respect they get from accommodation and maintenance staff, and the stress of having to work part-time alongside their studies just to pay the rent. To many, their halls do not feel like a home. They do not feel like they have ownership of, or control over, their spaces of residence.
Secondly, and unsurprisingly, as already hinted, rents are extortionate. Now that Batavia Mews (by far the cheapest halls at £113 a week) is no longer being offered to students after this academic year, the cheapest rooms available for Goldsmiths students will be around £140 a week (£5880 a year) in Surrey House – and these are only 80 rooms of the 1200 rooms in total, with the rest generally being far more expensive. The average annual cost of a room in a Goldsmiths-run hall is around £6,300, while the average in a CLV-run hall is an outrageous £8,100. This eats up many a student’s maintenance loan and leaves little for other essentials unless they take on the extra stress and time of a part-time job. Out goes rent, in comes stress.
Why is all this happening? Where did all these bloodsuckers come from? There’s no easy answer here – if there were, there wouldn’t be a housing crisis – but we can point towards the progressive marketisation of UK higher education over the past three decades as one key cause. Driven by neoliberal logics of competitiveness and efficiency, seeking to discipline potentially subversive academia, successive governments over the past thirty years have introduced sweeping reforms to higher education that have drastically transformed the running of British universities. This reality is widespread and beyond the scope of Goldsmiths, but what is prevelant is the progressive cuts in funding that universities have faced from governments since 2010. Governments have cut grants to universities (particularly for non-STEM subjects), while increasing tuition fees and scrapping the cap on student numbers universities were previously subject to. The result has been a higher education sector categorised by panic with universities now largely reliant on tuition fees for income, thus incentivising them to bring in as many students as possible in order to stay afloat. Every year becomes another scramble for income and throws up a new set of issues as student numbers swell, rents rise, and mental health problems spread. This is the form of contingent, rudderless governance that neoliberalism creates – no grand vision or overarching rationality, just a series of overpaid, headless chickens sat in committee rooms.
Marketisation has not affected education alone, but instead reflects a broader encroachment of neoliberalism into all areas of social and political life. As the neoliberal state recedes from the direct funding of public services under the guises of “efficiency” and “choice”, previously publicly-owned and somewhat democratic public institutions have come to be run like businesses deeply enmeshed with the private sector and capital. We’ve seen this in healthcare (with an increasing number of health and care services being tendered to private providers) and welfare (with various welfare services now outsourced to companies like Serco, G4S and Capita), and the same applies to universities.
This logic of privatisation in the university has manifested in numerous ways. Firstly, an NUS and UNISON report in 2013 revealed how over half of universities outsource cleaning and security services – among others – to private companies to cut costs. This was the case at Goldsmiths until the successful Justice for Cleaners campaign last summer. With the security staff having now started their campaign to be brought in-house. Secondly, research funding has also increasingly relied on private capital, with fifteen universities taking £40m in research grants from defence contractors over the past three years. Finally, universities have systematically used rent rises and halls privatisation as a means to raise income. The average annual rents in purpose built student accommodation have risen by a third over the last seven years, and private providers are increasingly providing the bed spaces – 50%, up from 21% ten years ago.
The problems in halls, are not isolated issues but symptoms of the disastrous processes of marketisation and privatisation that have wrecked the higher education sector. The terrible conditions, high rents, and poor working conditions of the outsourced cleaners and security staff, don’t arise out of nowhere, but precisely from these neoliberal logics that university managers hold dear. Our fight for cheap, affordable halls, therefore, is more than just about housing – it’s about resisting and destroying neoliberalism as the dominant organiser of our lives. As the thing that is making us ill, sucking our blood, leaving dead mice in our beds, exploding our ovens. It’s about fighting for a democratic university run by students and workers, continuously standing up to the government and for the ideal of a free and liberated education system.
This resistance is where Goldsmiths Housing Action comes in. Over the past few months we’ve been busy laying the groundwork for a collective, grassroots campaign at Goldsmiths in order to win justice for student tenants and reverse the tide of privatisation that presents itself as irreversible. We’ve been speaking to tenants, and holding meetings in students’ halls and kitchens. We’ve produced a Student Tenants’ Rights Handbook to immediately empower those with housing issues at Goldsmiths. We’ve employed direct action to disrupt the ordinary functioning of the university until they seriously tackle the issues in halls, such shutting down Goldsmiths College Council’s fancy annual supper a few weeks ago, to the dismay of senior management figures. We’ve had a meeting with senior management, in order to hold them to account.
But there’s more to be done. The next step will be our demonstration on the 27th February at 12pm. The bigger it is, the louder it is, the more collective it is, the stronger our movement becomes, and the more the chinks in private armour begin to show. The closer we get to a university rid of outsourcing, privatisation, and marketisation. Our demonstration will also give you the chance to be part of a collective network of solidarity and care, fighting those in power.
Join the demo, cut the rent, kill the vampires. See you on the 27th.
Words, Jake Roberts
Images, Goldsmiths Housing Action