‘This is only the beginning’: Clare students end rent strike after 40 days but promise further campaigning

The forty students withholding over £60,000 in rent have collectively decided to end their current action

Clare Rent Strike have suspended their rent strike until the next academic year, after 40 days of striking.

This decision was made “collectively” by students involved at a meeting on 16th June. The forty students involved had been withholding over £60,000 in rent since 7th May.

The strike was the culmination of seven months of campaigning regarding issues of high rent, the College’s broader pandemic response, and Clare’s treatment of students and staff as part of this, with students accusing Clare of caring “more about profit” than student and staff well-being.

Striking students had initially been threatened with bans from attending in-person graduation ceremonies and returning students from accessing College accommodation. Such threats have been rolled back with the end of the strike and no strikers will be fined for their involvement.

Clare College Rent Strike have said they are “immensely proud” of what they’ve achieved so far, explaining that without having met up in a full group in person, they have managed to “build up a strong network of angry students and workers across the college” and have “laid the foundations for radical future action.”

Their decision to suspend the strike wasn’t “taken lightly.” It was decided it wouldn’t be “feasible to continue the strike over the summer,” but that campaigning will continue next academic year with further rent strikes being used if necessary.

Clare’s senior management is changing with a new incoming master, but students are anticipating that the college’s “ruthless prioritisation of profit over the interests of students and workers” will remain the same.

Clare College Rent Strike say: “Senior management’s draconian disciplinary threats and complete refusal to seriously engage with our demands are a symptom of the dismal relationship that Clare College currently has with its tenants and employees.”

Rent Strike Cambridge have said that the fact the strike went ahead amidst these threats “shows the level of anger” from students at the College’s treatment of students and workers.

They hope that the strike, and the fact that they have managed to avoid disciplinary action in spite of it, will “encourage students, whether at Clare or elsewhere, to continue to take action against the financial priorities of the College university.” They declare: “We’ve set a precedent for the power of collective action, and this is only the beginning.”

Students held a protest on 5th June                                                                                 (Photo Credit: Clare College Rent Strike)

The dispute

Students had been on rent strike since 7th May after the Clare College Rent Strike set out their demands in an open letter in March. The letter included calls for rent reductions and commitments to better treatment of staff, saying that “years of campaigning and lobbying” have been consistently “ignored” by the College.

They said Clare announced that rent would continue to increase above the rate of inflation in the next academic year, despite “already widespread dissatisfaction” from students about the College’s rent and its pandemic response. The group said that students aren’t told their rent until the start of the year, and that they have little means of requesting a less expensive room if they require it.

Campaigners claimed that staff have faced real-term pay cuts this year, as well as the cancellation of annual bonuses that the College committed to in May 2020.

Housekeeping staff were also made to continue cleaning communal college spaces despite the national lockdown that began in November 2020, and the rising infection rates at that time. Students have claimed staff were denied several direct requests to speak on these matters at the College’s Finance Committee due to their “conflict of interest.”

Strikers also argued Clare is currently in violation of the Equality Act 2010 regarding how it treats disabled students, “making them pay for more expensive accommodation which is needed on account of their disability.” They claim that a disabled student would have to pay a total of £222 extra to access this accommodation.

They also claim that since the start of the pandemic the College’s endowment has grown by 12.6% to a valuation of £144.3 million, yet rent is still being increased above the inflation rate.

Tensions escalated in early June with a protest being held outside the College on 5th June to restate their demands and mark one month of the strike. At an informal meeting on 7th June, senior management allegedly “explained away” the treatment of non-academic college workers by “claiming that they have access to punting and that the college holds annual Christmas parties.”

Reactions from students

Jess Hoskins, a second-year undergraduate at Clare and member of Clare College Rent Strike, said the prices Clare is setting for its students, such as charging international students £300 to quarantine for two weeks, shows that “Clare College cares more about profit than it does about the welfare of staff and students.”

Oscar Simms, fellow undergraduate and Clare College Rent Strike member said the demands were “born out of years of campaigning by the Clare student body and the Student Union. 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.”

Rent Strike Cambridge Campaign

Clare College Rent Strike was supported by the Cambridge SU who asked the College to participate in talks to resolve the dispute. The SU set up an Escrow bank account to act as a third-party between the strikers and Clare, and to strengthen the position of those on strike by securing their money and preventing the college targeting specific students.

The strike was part of a long-term Rent Strike Cambridge campaign that was launched in November 2020. Original plans for a rent strike in January were delayed following the new lockdown and most students being prevented from returning until Easter Term.

Students at eight other colleges (including Jesus, Robinson, Murray Edwards, and Newnham) had committed to going on rent strike, but were prevented by the movement of rent payment dates and threats of disciplinary action.

Prior to this, over 700 Cambridge students had signed up to withhold over £1 million in rent, constituting “one of the largest mass student mobilisations at Cambridge University in decades.”

Rent Strike Cambridge is part of a national movement which has seen successful rent strikes across the country this year, including at Manchester University and Bristol University, which both achieved 30 per cent rent reductions, at Sussex Universities, which achieved a 10 per cent reduction, and at University College London, which achieved capped rent and increases in bursaries.  

Clare College has been contacted for comment. 

Feature image credit: Laura Hone