Queen Mary University has struck again. Whether its discrimination against staff, institutionalised racism or using students as cash cows, it seems that the university just cannot resist exploiting its students and staff. Not even in a pandemic. This time, the victims are students who were duped by the university into living in halls of residence. With the promise of ‘blended learning’ and some semblance of normal, students instead found themselves trapped in isolated flats and insufficient conditions. Students across the UK have banded together to call for rent strikes at over 45 different universities. Amongst them includes our very own QMUL Rent Strike campaign. QMUL Rent Strike holds a unique position as it continues on the legacy of housing strikes in East London which have historically been used as a form of resistance against classism and racism.
In the aftermath of the first lockdown in 2020, students were understandably confused and conflicted about upholding the tradition of campus-living once term started in September. The university eliminated this confusion by promoting the idea of combining both in-person classes and virtual lessons. With the arrival of September 2020, students moved onto campus with the expectation that the university would support them through the pandemic. This was an illusion that simply exposed the very real hyper-marketisation of higher education.
As students paid their rent, it started to become clear early into the term that most classes were being held virtually. Furthermore, despite the residential flats being considered a ‘household’, residents were still being told to socially distance from each other, wear masks, and ‘avoid using the kitchen’. This led to students being isolated for over 20 hours a day. Worse than that, students have reported rodents, mould, water damage, drainage problems, and broken appliances.
Bengali families preferred to live in the discomfort of squats rather than being rehoused by Greater London Council, in areas where they were in constant danger of racist and violent attacks.
These reports recall a pattern of poor conditions in East London housing and QMUL Rent Strike connects these struggles to the experience of other marginalised groups who have faced similar problems in the East End. In particular, the circumstances of Bengali squatters in the seventies. They were mainly immigrants who had recently arrived in the UK or had moved from recession-hit towns of the Midlands and the North. They were crowded into old and derelict houses. In Sarah Glynne’s study, ‘East End Immigrants and The Battle for Housing’, it is stated that ‘the cramped conditions, the inadequate and broken sanitary arrangements, the rats that bit children in their sleep seem as if they came from the pages of Dicken.’ It is the existence of racism and classism that has ensured this suffering. Bengali families preferred to live in the discomfort of squats rather than being rehoused by Greater London Council, in areas where they were in constant danger of racist and violent attacks. This is a story of a struggle that has existed for decades.
One of the early stages of the movement includes the Squatter’s Union headed by Terry Fitzpatrick from his squat in Aston Street. Fitzpatrick as a trained builder would help families break into empty houses and buildings, and would carry out repairs and ‘replace fittings’ that were deliberately destroyed by the council. It was not until Mala and Farrukh Dhondy knocked on the Aston Street door where the squatters were having their weekly meeting that the movement became part of a larger political dimension.
Mala and Farukh were members of the Race Today Collective. The Race Today Collective combined libertarian Marxism with radical anti-racism They produced a journal called Race Today, edited by Darcus Howe that argued the importance of Black consciousness and Black radicalism as a key factor in political mobilisation. Race Today had a vision for the squatters to become part of the movement for Black-self organisation. So, in February 1976, Fitzpatrick and Dondhy bought together members of seventy Bengali families, and they formed the Bengali Housing Action Group, more commonly known as BHAG.
Along with BHAG, Fitzpatrick and Farrukh Dhondy broke into an empty bulk of Pelham Buildings on an Easter Sunday, which was waiting for GLC redevelopment. They moved six Bengali families into the building at first. Within three months, they had re-housed 41 Bengali families into the Pelham buildings. This became BHAG’S fortress; it was an inspiration to other Bengali squatters.
BHAG was just one movement in East London that made the battle for housing, intimately connected to the battle against racism on the streets. Race Today also instrumentalized the establishment of the Anti Racist Committee of Asians in East London which rejected the idea of seeking help from official channels and instead organised their own vigilante patrols to prevent Bengalis from being attacked. The struggle for decent housing tackled more than just one issue at once. It mobilised Bengali youth into realising the part that they can play, the changes that they could make, the barriers they could break.
QMUL’s Rent Strike campaign draws inspiration and strength from this history of the Bengali housing struggle. Rent strikes in East London have always been a form of resistance against racism. Utilising the tactics of those who came before them, they have had almost 300 students sign up to withhold their rent. They demanded a 30% rent reduction rate which the university has just recently agreed to. However, the other seven demands outlined in the open letter have not been met so the strike continues. Amongst the other demands include, refunds for this lockdown period, better mental health support, no job losses for cleaning, maintenance and teaching staff who work in QMUL Halls.
A spokesperson from the campaign has said, “QMUL’s Rent Strike campaign is mindful of the history of rent striking in East London, which has been used by marginalised groups to protest racist housing policies. We, therefore, see spreading awareness of this history to our strikers as crucial. We have a striker solidarity call planned for the 16th (the day rent is due), and this session will include a section on the history of rent strikes in the East End. We also think it’s important to reject how management brags about being ‘the most diverse Russell Group university. We are providing our strikers with the knowledge of how management is actually working against us and the interests of people of colour by treating QMUL cleaners who are majority POC with little respect, and also by charging us exorbitant rent. This is so they can make the connection between them rent striking today and it’s anti-racist roots, as well as how these two things are deeply intertwined and so relevant to the movement now.”
As students in Manchester have celebrated success after occupying a university building for two weeks, and winning a 30% reduction in rent rates, QMUL students are just gearing up to strike and protest from the 16th of January. This campaign urging better conditions for students in halls is entrenched in the history of rent-striking in East London tackling issues of racism, classism, and capitalism. If demands are met, not only will students have achieved better conditions but it will be a step in the right direction from the university. As an institution that capitalises on being ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’, it’s time to start actually embodying these terms.
QMUL was invited to comment and they provided a statement on the matter:
“Recognising the impact of the current national restrictions upon our students, we have offered all our undergraduate students in University-owned accommodation a 30% rent reduction on the full remaining term of their residential licence agreement. We have made a comparable offer to our postgraduate students who are unable to return. We have been working with our Students’ Union on this issue, and have written to all our students in University-owned residences on this point.
“Many of our students live in private accommodation. We are also working closely with sector partners to encourage private providers of student accommodation to offer similar support. In the meantime, if any student is facing financial hardship, they should apply for help via our Financial Assistance Fund.”
You can also sign up to strike using this form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdL3_f-CJTWY3PdSZ0xAdIq1W-ynvbrHbk8itWHIdQ4AMRcSA/viewform