As reported earlier this year, Southampton came second to bottom out of 25 main university cities surveyed on the RBS Student Living Index 2016, which calculates the average expenditure against the average income of students in a university city.
One of the main factors in the cost of student living, is rent prices, which have seen a dramatic increase in university accommodation over the last few years. The cost of many student accommodation facilities is simply unreasonable. In UCL, for example, 45 % of the student accommodation rent goes to profit and in Kent average university accommodation prices are £5,420.61 per academic year.
Students across the country have already devised ways of fighting back against the exploitation of their rent. With UCL and Kent University students leading the way last year, Cut The Rent campaigns, where students strike on their rent payments, have now been threatened in 25 different universities across the UK. In Edinburgh, the bottom city on the RBS Student Living Index, students have taken up to creating their own student housing co-operative, allowing them to own the accommodation themselves. This has reduced accommodation prices by as much as half as none of the rent price goes to profit. Birmingham and Sheffield students have followed suit.
These campaigns will only succeed if they are united by a wider, joint campaign supported by the whole student community in every university campus. This wider campaign should not be limited to just tackling the student rent situation. The high cost of rent, the short-cuts made by landlords, the scrapping of student maintenance grants, and the steadily climbing tuition fees mean that further education is becoming a greater risk for young people to take. The crisis in the wider economic system is causing massive de-investment in education and in doing so it is creating a resource that only the most privileged can afford to access.
The same situation is happening in higher education with the re-introduction of grammar schools. This move will be used as an excuse to defund many existing schools to prop up a smaller number of schools kept at the average standard of (if not, a little higher than) today’s schools. In other words, it’s an excuse to relieve a straining budget through yet more austerity measures. Less people will even have the chance to consider further education when they’re pushed through an education system that the government, as with the NHS, has almost given up on.
It is not just the students who are being let down by the education system. Last year as we saw on Southampton’s campus, university lecturers went on strike over the 14.5 % pay cuts they have received since 2009. This comes at the same time that average university vice-chancellors’ salaries have increased £12,000 since two years ago. As with students, when staff have fought back, victories have been won such as the Graduate Teaching Assistants strike victory at KCL last Spring, where they secured a 20 % increase in salary when faced with casualisation of their jobs.
The university staff were also striking in protest against the gender pay gap that exists in university education – female staff are paid 12.6% less on average than their male counterparts. In a world where the gender pay gap is stagnating or in some cases even increasing (the average annual wage for women fell from £18,000 to £15,400 in 2014 whereas men’s stayed the same at £24,800) it is important to remember that the struggle for a better education system is linked with the struggle for gender and racial equality.
It is clear that a real solution to the student rent crisis and indeed the education crisis must come from a change to the very system which props up education. We need a system that is prepared to allow education to prosper and develop, not for a small group, but for all members of society. Our current failing capitalist system can only resort to austerity measures is unfit to do this.
A National Education Service, such as the Labour Party proposes, is the first step to achieving this. It would put the control of the education system into the hands of the people who use it. Instead of letting money accumulate in the vaults of tax-havens it would be invested into developing the capabilities of the next generation of people and the next generation of technology.
Both students and staff in further education must stand in solidarity to fight for this. The further education system should stand with the higher education system in solidarity, realising that we both face the same issues. And ultimately, the youth and the workers must unite together through organs such as the Labour Party, to change the system and bring not just education, but the health service, the banks, the railways, industry back into the control of the people who care about and need them.