The Rents Campaign
On Saturday afternoon, I stopped two children aged about ten, to ask them why a number of police officers wearing bright yellow fluorescent waistcoats had just burst out of a van around the corner and run towards the city centre. The fetchingly-attired police - I was told - were there to assist in crowd control at a large animal rights protest. My young informants demonstrated themselves as remarkably informed on the issues concerned, though they did not appear to sympathise. Later that day I would find myself having to negotiate my way across town through the long, but by no means impenetrable, lines of impassioned activists.
A rather different sort of activism was exhibited the next day on Parkers' Piece, where just two hundred rents protesters were rallying. The Rents Campaign has descended back into the haze of student apathy from which it arose last October. Without a doubt, it will be followed by a renewed contempt for collective student activism and a reinforced presumption of the futility and irrelevance of CUSU. It has succeeded in demonstrating its powers to influence and set the agenda, but unfortunately it has chosen the wrong issue over which to do so. It has fallen into the classic student trap of failing to separate ideas about different issues and consequently fighting the wrong battle.
The CUSU Rents Campaign has, as an article of faith, the assumption that rents are inextricably linked to access. Colleges which, as part of an attempt to buy off their striking junior members, cynically agree to investigate the issues of access or offer to establish formal structures connected with it, are treading on dangerous ground by implicitly conceding the notion of a link between the two issues of access and rent. The danger for CUSU is even greater. As a students' union it may only concern itself with issues affecting students, but not prospective or potential students. The practice of charging rent at a level below its cost price is financially irresponsible. Some colleges admit that they de-coupled rents from inflation in the 1980s to shelter students from the monetarist policies of the Conservative Government. The Royal Commission into the funding of Oxford and Cambridge University has long since unequivocally recommended that rents be charged at full price. To do otherwise would be to gradually lose money and thus place even heavier financial burdens on future taxpayers, students and foundations.
Colleges are being asked by the rents campaigners to continue subsidising students, both rich and poor. It cannot be in the interests of the poorer applicants whose cause the Rents Campaign champions to have to pay as much to their college as their wealthier counterparts. To suggest that the money saved by ending rents subsidies be used to assist poorer students invites the wrath of the rents strikers in this very one-sided debate. Accepting handouts for a bursary promised on confirmation of one's offer, for example, is deemed too demeaning for applicants. Heaven knows how people who believe this coped with the outrage against human dignity which general free tertiary tuition must have constituted in this confused ideology. The reason for the objection is simple: if colleges were to offer poorer students grants and bursaries when they originally made their offers, then the link between rents and access would be exposed as a non-existent chimera.
The Rents Campaign is a campaign for campaigning's sake. The interests of students would certainly be furthered by a higher profile central union which can be confidently relied upon to get things done and fight for their rights. However, leading students into dangerous confrontations with their colleges need not be the way of achieving this. Very few of the strikers I questioned were able to tell me whether they'd be able to take their degrees if they owed money to their college or the University; a far cry from the well-informed ten year olds who knew more than I did about vivisection and live animal exports. We have seen the standard rhetoric, marches, letters to MPs, rallies and occupations, but very little information or productive debate between students.