If you thought that the student mental health “crisis” was something of an exaggeration, let us start off with some fun statistics. According to recent research by the National Union of Students, 78% of students have experienced mental health problems in the last year. Around half of those who have experienced problems with mental health said they have difficulty completing daily tasks.
Overall, the number of students in need of mental health support is rising sharply. On average, universities in the UK provide one counsellor for every 300 students that seek help from student mental health services — bearing in mind that around a third of students do not know where to get mental health support at their university, this figure is staggeringly, distressingly low.
When ex-student activists bemoan the lack of a 2010-style student uprising, complete with Millbank-bashing and mass demos, I think of the thousands nationwide who are struggling to keep on top of their studies while working at minimum-wage jobs, unable to access mental health services and feeling suffocated under the looming weight of tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Is it surprising that students aren’t going to meetings and occupying their universities, when there is no time, no money or no energy left?
Universities are failing at two of their core duties; they are not providing accessible higher education, and they are not caring for their students’ welfare. Of course, these are not actually the aims of a university. Universities are the tools of an oppressive society. They are fundamentally classist, racist, sexist, and ableist institutions. Increasingly, they exist solely to make a profit.
Students appear toothless when facing these aggressive, ruthlessly capitalist institutions. If we can’t organise long occupations and rallies, what hope is there for change? Mass student strikes, such as in Quebec, are unlikely to happen when university degrees are now goods that students are paying for — after all, what sense is there in striking when a student strike means essentially throwing money into the bottomless cesspit of greedy university management?
Rent strikes are the answer. Becoming a rent striker is the easiest form of protest action: through the simple act of not paying your rent, you become a part of a movement with real power.
Rent strikes challenge universities in two ways. Firstly, and obviously, they call attention to the social responsibility of universities by stating that high rents in student accommodation are essentially a secondary tuition fee, making it impossible for an increasing number of young people to go to university.
Secondly, and maybe less obviously, rent strikes have the potential to build a new kind of social life on campus — a community within a community, a solidarity network. Rent striking students should use the community of strikers as an opportunity for something more: by organising in flats, corridors and halls we can begin to care for each other. We can cook together to alleviate pressures of money and time and start food co-ops on campus. We can start support groups for those stuck eternally waiting to see a therapist.
We can reclaim the spaces we live and study in — if we can’t stage elaborate campus occupations, why not occupy our own halls, where we can occupy while at home? We can hang banners from windows, paint our corridors and create communities in the places that were designed for us to lead isolated lives in our small rooms.
If the rent strike movement spreads nationwide, to universities from Sussex to Stirling, I hope it can do more than offer students a chance to take direct action related to accessibility of education and cost of living. I hope it can transform our everyday lives and help us alleviate each other’s struggles. We need to emphasise the importance of taking seriously the crises facing students — and we need to respond to these crises in our own terms. We need to liberate ourselves to live a life worth living. We need to do this now.
UCL Cut The Rent
This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Freedom anarchist journal