On October 24th, 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, students at the University of Bristol began what has now become the largest student rent strike in UK history. Facing what they believed to be false promises of blended learning, unjust rental policies, and inadequate health and well-being provisions, Bristol students’ motivation to strike was strong. As they shared on social media: “It’s unacceptable that the university told students to come and live in halls when they can’t keep us safe. The uni clearly just wanted students to come back so they could have our accommodation fees.”
The Bristol Rent Strike, which now has over 1900 students pledging to withhold rent (and growing by the day!), is one of the many ongoing student strikes across the UK. Over the past few months, students at roughly 20 universities including Manchester, Oxford, and Cambridge have organized mass rent strikes, demanding overall reductions in rent, no-penalty contract releases, and better accommodation conditions. But one significant obstacle stands in their way: Many of these students live in financialized student housing—in buildings owned not by universities but by multi-million-dollar corporations. The financialization of student housing has fundamentally altered the relationship between universities and students and, in so doing, has complicated student resistance against housing injustice.
Both the UK rent strikes and the media discourse around them have focused on the relationship between students and universities, presenting a narrative which pits one group against the other—and thereby perpetuates a false binary. The story here is in fact much more complicated; what the students-versus-university administration narrative obscures is the crucial role of third-party student housing providers. These corporations, which lease their properties to universities, have shaped the provision of student housing in profound ways, and have led to the creation of the Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) sector. They also play an important part in how universities respond (or choose not to respond) to student rent strikes. As such, any discussion of the UK rent strikes must also include a discussion of the student housing industry, and must contextualize these strikes within the increasingly financialized landscape of student housing provision.
Over the past two decades, corporations and private developers have become important actors in the provision of student accommodation. This is especially true in the UK, where the PBSA market is now valued at over 50 billion pounds. The growth of the sector is in part due to the increase of students in UK higher education and the demand for student housing outstripping supply. Seeking to fill this gap and motivated by the low risks and high returns that the PBSA market provides, corporations like Unite Group and the Student Housing Company set exorbitant rent prices with the peace of mind that students will still choose to live in their buildings, especially first-years and those from abroad. PBSA is a lucrative property type, to be sure, and its recent trajectory has made this clear: Between 2014 and 2019, investment into PBSA grew by 135 percent. The next year, in 2020, private equity firm Blackstone purchased British student housing company iQ Student Accommodation for nearly five billion pounds, making it the largest private property transaction in UK history.
The growth of the PBSA market happens in tandem with the increased outsourcing of student housing from universities to these corporations—and this relationship is critical. When these two parties enter contracts with each other, an important agreement is established: The university guarantees the corporation a baseline occupancy level, a minimum amount of rent paid, in exchange for leasing its buildings. It is through these university-corporation partnerships that the global flow of financial capital into PBSA transforms the local conditions of tenancy. And it is in part because of these university-corporation partnerships that students were brought back to campus this past year. Without students taking up accommodation offers in PBSA residences, universities were likely to be in breach of their lease covenants, forfeiting millions of pounds in revenue.
The role of financialization and the implications of resistance toward it (e.g. through rent strikes) have been overlooked in both popular and academic discourses around student housing. The Covid-19 outbreak and current UK rent strikes illuminate just how striking this silence is. As student tenants struggle to afford their rents during a time of immense financial precarity, PBSAs continue driving up rent prices (with universities serving as the intermediary between supply and demand). This inverse relationship, the maximizing of profit at the expense of affordability, is true to patterns of financialized housing more generally and has remained true for the PBSA sector since the pandemic. The PBSA market not only produced net positive returns in 2020, it also outpaced the all-property average for that same year. The resilience and continued profitability of PBSA puts into further perspective the lack of affordable rent in the student accommodation sector, as well as student frustrations about their own rental situations. The issue is that these frustrations are being directed almost exclusively at universities, thereby ignoring the profit motives of the student housing companies with which those universities work and which, year after year, accelerate the growing cost of student housing. A core aim of the UK rent strikes has been to make rent prices more affordable to students—but without addressing a key root cause behind this unaffordability, such a win would be a temporary solution to a problem that will likely only grow worse.
What the UK rent strikes reveal to us, then, are twofold. They point us toward the processes of financialization that have come to dominate the student housing industry, as well as the difficulties that go into resisting those processes—a central difficulty being that financialization obfuscates itself. For students living in privately-owned accommodations, the terms of their tenancies have been determined by university-corporation transactions of which they likely have little to no knowledge (these internal contracts, it may be obvious to note, are not made publicly available). Consequently, many students naturally assume that their universities are their landlords, and therefore direct their efforts toward them. As mentioned, these efforts can be successful in securing important wins, but these wins still occur within the parameters of the university’s own financial framework. They are thus inevitably constrained to a concessions ceiling unknown to parties outside the contracts that universities hold with student housing providers. Moving beyond these concessions and toward lasting change will require that students confront the relationships between corporations and universities which make possible the financialization of student housing. The UK rent strikes implicitly gesture toward the tripartite relationship at play among corporations, universities, and students, but neither they nor the public discourse around them has gone further than this point.
Even so, the current student rent strikes are still powerful. When students go on strike, they threaten to disrupt the system of financialization within which they exist, regardless of whether such an aim is articulated or intentioned. By contesting their contracts with universities, students undermine their universities’ contracts with student housing providers. They decommodify themselves from those contracts, and thus help demonstrate (and provide avenues through which to further imagine) localized modes of resistance to global processes of financialization. In order to build momentum and move toward more affordable student housing, they now need to interrogate the PBSA sector itself. Eventually, the Covid-19 pandemic will end, but the issues motivating the strikes will remain in place. It is therefore important to understand, while the rent strikes are ongoing, (1) the obfuscated but central role of PBSA within student housing provision and (2) rent strikes as a potential form of resistance to, and push toward de-financialization of, the student accommodation sector. Reframing the ways in which we think about the rent strikes will ultimately reframe the ways in which we think about, and consequently react to, the increasing financialization of housing. This is a necessary next step in the fight for fair and affordable housing, both within the PBSA market and beyond it.