Durham Students’ Union has voted to support a motion demanding that the University cut the cost of renting college accommodation. The motion, which was supported by 90% of Durham SU Assembly, resolves that the SU supports the demands of the ‘Ripped Off’ campaign for the price of a standard, single, catered room in college to be capped at £6,746, and will support “as far as possible” action taken to bring about the demands.
Other demands in the motion included a discount on accommodation fees for returning students living in college to allow the University to meet its aspiration of housing 50 to 55% of students in college-affiliated accommodation by 2027.
It also demanded that 25% of college accommodation cost 50% of the maximum maintenance loan (£9,203), in line with the National Union of Students’ (NUS) recommendations. SU officers will now be mandated to communicate these demands to the University.
The motion noted that the cost of college accommodation fees have risen above inflation rates and are higher than the average maintenance loan. The NUS recommends that a quarter of first-year accommodation costs half of the maximum maintenance loan, a target that Durham does not meet.
The ‘Ripped Off’ campaign is also calling on the University to publish an annual breakdown of how college accommodation fees are spent. According to previous Freedom of Information requests, around half of the fees are spent directly in college.
The motion means that Durham SU now believes that the price of college accommodation “prices out lower-income students, contributing to a longstanding elitist culture at the institution” and that “last year’s rent increase did not even benefit staff in colleges, who are facing unprecedented cutbacks and a culture of disrespect”.
St Aidan’s SU representative Emily Jolliffe, presenting the motion, said: “All of these demands are based on extensive SU research and NUS recommendations […] and students have a right to know how their money is spent.”
She admitted that “the University has [not] been particularly receptive in the past” but stressed that “this gives us the best chance to go to the University and actually get something done” to “reduce the stupidly high accommodation costs in Durham”.
Kathryn Ellison, Chair of the SU Representatives Committee, told Palatinate: “It is important that more pressure is placed on the University to lower accommodation fees. Accommodation costs at Durham are absurd compared to other North Eastern universities and cutting the rent will have a huge benefit to JCR communities and social integration.”
The news comes soon after a successful rent strike by students at the University of Manchester, who occupied a university building in protest. Having campaigned for a 40% cut, the students won a rebate equivalent to four weeks’ rent, or 30% of fees.
The decision, which came as a result of negotiations between the striking students and the University conducted through the Students’ Union, was accompanied by several other concessions by the university, including a commitment not to penalise those that participated in the strike.
Though the ‘Ripped Off’ campaign has not called for a rent strike, Ms Jolliffe told Assembly: “If we have clear demands, then we can potentially do direct action, and we would actually have something to ask the University for, as opposed to just saying ‘we’re going on strike, please reduce our rent’”.
Palatinate asked St Aidan’s ‘Ripped Off’ what their plans are if their demands are not met, and whether they will initiate a rent strike. Joe McGarry, St Aidan’s JCR ‘Ripped Off’ President and Ms Jolliffe, who is also St Aidan’s JCR Outreach Chair, commented: “After three years of campaigning at Durham on this issue, it is clear to us that nothing short of radical direct action will bring about change. A rent strike is always the nuclear option for any student group, and we’ve always firmly supported the idea of a rent strike.
“However, it is important to only threaten one when you’ve done all of the legal research and have the momentum to be able to carry it out. We don’t want to be a group that constantly promises to engage in specific direct action with no capacity to follow it through.
“Historically, this has happened in Durham, and sometimes it can reduce the effectiveness and legitimacy of a campaign because it can trivialise something which is a very important issue for some students, especially those from a lower-income background, if the campaigning you do seems to be based on your image as opposed to a serious commitment to action.”
Image: Amana Moore