Change begins at home: student struggles around living conditions

University of Sussex campus, 1965.

If we are to be honest about the situation, the conditions which students are willing to live in are often quite poor. Having just left the family home, frequently being drunk or hungover and simply being too lazy to take the bins out means that student housing almost inevitably means living somewhere a bit rough round the edges.

At the same time, however, landlords (whether private or university) have taken such a situation as carte blanche to take the piss. Having rented a few places, I (like pretty much everyone else I’ve ever known) have repeatedly been confronted with landlords and letting agents keen to squeeze every last penny out of you while refusing to sort out even the most basic issues of disrepair. This problem is compounded by cuts to grants and bursary schemes as well as increases in interest rates on the loans we take out.

The University of Sussex, when acting as a landlord, was never much different. From the early 1970s, student struggles around living conditions had been a recurring feature of Sussex life with several rent strikes and occupations over the years. Even in my cursory glance through the archives I found mention of rent strikes in 1972, 1973, 1974-75, 1977, 1979, 1982 and 1985 as well as a smattering of occupations over the issues.

Again, I was in no position to do a proper investigation into all these events so had to focus my research on a few specific disputes. Firstly, I will look at the formation of the University of Sussex Tenants Association (USTA) and the 1972 rent strike against substandard university accommodation. Secondly, I will cover the 1973 rent strike over university grants for students1. Finally, I’ll look at the downturn in struggle between 1973-75 that still saw an occupation of Sussex House by homeless students and an epic rent strike against grant cuts and rent increases at Sussex university.

The 1972 rent strike and the formation of USTA

When Sussex was founded, its campus was almost certainly an idyllic haven for its 400-odd students. The University Grants Commission funded its early accommodation but later the university funded its building projects by taking out loans. These loans were then to be paid back by increasing the profitability of the properties and the university in general.

As the student population grew, the accommodation provided began to grow increasingly inadequate. In 1971 (when campus population was about 1,000) it was noted that no study of student opinion on housing had been taken since 1963 (when total student population was 410)2. There was little forward planning by the university and the building of accommodation seemed to be on an ad hoc basis, resulting in rapidly decreasing living standards and “structural faults” leading to “endless problems like damp and fungus”3.

With these issues in mind, the University of Sussex Tenants’ Association (USTA) was set up in the autumn term of 1971 with the intention of reversing the deteriorating living conditions on campus.

Almost immediately, USTA was in dispute. The university’s plan to build new campus accommodation, Park House 6, in exactly the same inadequate design as the rest of campus accommodation was too much for students. Disregarding the assurances he gave to students that no further planning on Park House 6 would go ahead until students had been properly consulted, the VC began negotiations for the planning as soon as the students began going back home for the Christmas holiday4. The remnants of the campus population mobilised for a meeting and passed two resolutions. The first was that the “form and siting of future accommodation be decided by a committee having parity student representation” while the second stated that no contract for borrowing money was to be signed until March 15th so that USTA could submit an alternative proposal5.

“Rents will be withheld indefinitely until the isolated and insensitive bureaucracy in Essex House wakens [sic] up and realises that we will no longer tolerate their paternalistic rail-roading of student demands”6. 77% of students on campus withheld their rent that term and many who paid had done so before the rent strike began.

It was not long after the struggle began that its view began to widen. A motion on the rent strike at a general meeting of the student union argued that the student housing problem was “inextricably linked to the general housing problem of the country”, called for workers’ control of the building industry (though admittedly this was framed by the traditional leftist call for nationalisation) and the “takeover of all empty property, including office blocks and luxury apartments”7. As the rent strike continued, issues of Unionews would frequently carry articles making links between the issues being faced by University of Sussex tenants and the wider housing crisis in the UK.

In a last-ditch attempt by the university to break the rent strike, Brian Smith, chairman of Community Services declared that “no students owing rent would be allowed back into University accommodation next year”8. This threat had little effect as by the time Smith’s statement was printed in Unionews, Vice Chancellor Professor Asa Briggs had agreed to meet with a delegation from USTA about the accommodation dispute and rent strike. Briggs then gave the delegation a signed statement which, true to the democratic nature of the struggle, was “presented to the General Meeting of USTA. The delegates made it clear that they had no mandate to reach a settlement there and then”9. At a well-attended general meeting that evening, the students decided to call off their rent strike and the first tenants’ struggle at Sussex was won.

The students had withheld a total of £35,000 for fifteen weeks and had won a victory from the university. The final agreement stated that “the planned hall of residence known as Park House 6 shall not be built, as its design sharply conflicts with the students’ requirements”10. The university was also forced to back down from its proposed 6.5% rent increase, which was knocked down to 3.5%.

The success of the rent strike carried over a culture of organisation into the next academic year. Students held meetings and took action over both large and small issues that negatively affected their living conditions. For instance, students living in Essex House “decided to elect a committee on a kitchen i.e. corridor basis” while Holland House residents met to discuss “increases in rent plus heating costs and also the grossly inadequate facilities, for instance one small sink in a kitchen serving 24 people […] To back up their demand for a reduction in charges and an improvement in facilities, the tenants decided on a rent strike”11.

1973: Rent strike over grants

In terms of successful student struggle, the 1971-72 academic year ended on a massive high. The prelim boycotts in both the Arts and Sciences coupled with the successful rent strike probably made radical students feel invincible. The next couple of years would bear more mixed results but still plenty of action.

When looking at their grant payments in September 1972, students found that they’d been raised by £15, a mere 4%, while being faced with inflation soaring at 20%. Furthermore, students found that the real-terms value of their grant had dropped almost 17% over the past decade. By October, a UGM of the student union accepted a motion demanding a £100 increase in the basic rate.

This would be part of a UK-wide campaign on grants (though the issue of Unionews referenced in this section mentions a “Europe-wide” campaign) and, like students at many other universities around the country, Sussex students prepared for a rent strike starting in January the next year. The rent strike at Sussex started on the 16th, combining it also with a boycott of the Refectory, while students at 23 other universities around the UK took part in their own rent strikes.

Unionews at this time was also showing a degree of dissatisfaction with the NUS highlighting the fact that they had accepted cuts in both 1968 (under Labour) and 1971 (under the Conservatives). The article continued:

“the policy of negotiation is insufficient. We must understand that the government is seeking to keep the cost of education as low as possible, and that so long as it meets with no determined opposition, so long will it continue to have its way.

At last we are beginning to recognise this fact. At the Autumn Conference, the NUS committed itself to militant action on a national scale, partly in response to students who were taking action independently at the eight universities where rent strikes were being held last term.”12

In my opinion, the above quote can be read as evidence of the Sussex students' openness to a “student specific” version of militant trade unionism; that is, an acceptance that direct action – not negotiation – is where students’ power lies (even if this isn’t extended to a critique of representative unions completely). It also shows that militant students at Sussex were aware that the NUS was always a few steps behind, being pushed into taking action by the fact that a significant portion of its base was taking action already.

The Sussex rent strike was well supported with two-thirds of students paying money into the USTA strike account and others holding onto their money themselves. About a quarter of students paid their rent but many of these were “foreign students advised by USTA to pay to avoid troubles with home countries’ governments”13. By late February, 44 universities around the UK were on rent strike.

In the midst of all this, the university administration decided it would be a good time to announce a 4.5% increase in rent at the beginning of the next academic year. Within a few months however they had changed their minds once more and “agreed not to raise student rents for another year”14.

It’s not clear what happened in these months as the agreement of the university to not raise rents seemed to have caused the end of the 1973 rent strike, which originally was about grants. Of course, this was probably tied in with what was going on with the wider grants campaign, of which I’m unable to find out details. Another question left unanswered from my research was the result of a discussion by Holland House residents’ about whether to continue their rent strike alone against their problem of overcrowding.

1973-75: you win some, you lose some

This chapter on student struggle is where the cracks begin to appear in the students’ militancy, for which there are a variety of possible reasons. A dramatic few years, it saw three separate occupations and one bloody long rent strike. However, though it wasn’t without its joyous moments, it also couldn’t be said to have ended in glorious victory for the students.

The period opened well. Students protested about a lack of accommodation after an estimated 100 students were left completely homeless at the beginning of the 1973-74 academic year. As a result, a meeting was called which gathered 500 students who then voted “by a large majority to occupy the Senate Chamber in Sussex House”15. Approximately 300 students marched over and occupied it immediately.

The scene described in Unionews is comical:

“The VC, Asa Briggs, looking out of his spacious office must have been bemused by the comings and goings – people scurrying between Falmer House carrying mattresses and blankets into the Chamber through the windows”16

However, one of the most interesting aspects of this occupation was the level of organisation amongst the students. The solidarity and mutual aid involved in maintaining this action was such that it brought forth the creative abilities of all its participants. Unionews continued:

“Food had to be provided. The doors were made secure by some well-built occupants and a fine pair of boots. Without doubt the whole operation went with precision, and with whole-hearted support from everybody involved that administrative Mecca of Sussex House began to change its colours. It is amazing in such a situation the ingenuity and effort of the occupation meant no effort was too great. No talent left unearthed – everybody could contribute something.”17

Furthermore, as with many struggles which took place at Sussex, the occupation took on a highly democratic character:

“Even though a co-ordinating committee existed […] all decisions are made by the mass meetings. The various committees merely carry out the mandates as expressed by the occupants themselves”18

Occupants stayed at Sussex House day and night with occupying numbers between 70 and 100. Thousands of leaflets were produced and distributed to students, faculty, campus staff and Brighton residents. Indeed, as before, the occupying students were keen to link the student housing shortage to the general shortage of housing. However, though addressed in the demands put forward by the occupiers, the language was less radical than it had been in 1972.

Certainly, the occupation did well in the way it addressed the immediate needs of the homeless students: it called for their immediate rehousing, and even demanded that Sussex entirely scraps ‘Category C’ housing – that is “housing so bad as to class the occupants as homeless”19.

However, whereas in 1972, students had called for taking over empty properties and workers’ control of industry, this occupation put forward calls to put pressure on Brighton and Lewes councils “to take action on vacant private housing”20. Indeed, other demands included the somewhat vague “careful investigation of new housing” and tenants’ association, trade union and student union representation on management’s housing committee.

These demands aside, the occupation lasted six days, after which the 100 students were all found new accommodation by the university management. However, in the coming months, the occupation would be criticised in the pages of Unionews:

“The demands were wide ranging but the extent of the action was pathetically short-term. The occupation was an unqualified success for the 100 homeless students but as far as the wider issues were concerned it was useless, taking place, as it did, away from Brighton where the problem lay […] nothing else was done in furtherance of those wider issues […] At the time of the occupation, there were around 1,000 families on the council waiting list – there are now around 1,400 on that list; then there were roughly 2,700 empty houses in Brighton, now there are nearly 3,000”21

Indeed, it would seem that though there were a variety of demands put forward by the occupying students, once the original demand of housing the homeless students was met, the occupation was ended. This obviously isn’t bad in itself; however, it does call into question the sincerity behind the rest of the demands.

The autumn term of 1973 also saw the rumblings of the following year’s rent strike. In response to the university going back on its promise at the end of the previous academic year to not raise student rents, an USTA general meeting opposed the proposed £1/week increase as unrealistic. The meeting concluded that “rent levels need to be related to grants and therefore while demanding a freeze on rents [the meeting] aligned the strike to the national grants campaign”22.

By the end of January, £20,000 had been collected in the USTA strike fund though the student union newspaper noted that most of the enthusiasm for the strike came from first year students while amongst third years “a weariness for this perennial occasion has set in”23. However, even in late April, 70% of students were withholding rent, although most were not putting it into the rent strike account.

Still, other reports show that the strike was weaker than usual. Towards the end of the 1973-74 academic year, third-years were sent letters stating that they would not be allowed to graduate if they were in debt to the university, which was widely understood to be in reference to the rent strike. Added to this were legal threats made against debtors if rents were not paid over the summer holidays. By October 1974, only 400 students (out of 4,000) were paying money into the USTA strike account. More positively, the Guest House Tenants’ Association (organisation for students in private housing arranged by the university) had put forward demands for their rent to be subsidised to campus levels and for the eventual abolition of the guest house system entirely by the end of the year.

Arguably as a result of the weakness of the rent strike, the students turned to other forms of action and on October 29th 1974, over ten months after the beginning of the rent strike, students occupied Sussex House and the university’s telephone exchange, stating the following aims:

“a) to prevent proposed increases in campus rent levels of 28% and to fight the recent refectory price increases of 12.5%

b) to gain immediate subsidy of guest house rents to campus levels and an end to the guest house system by October 1975”24

After a few weeks, a UGM of 1,000 students voted to end the occupation of the telephone desk (though not Sussex House) as negotiations continued. Students also intended to extend the campaign again should negotiations break down.

And indeed, students began preparing for the rent strike in the New Year, canvassing for support and getting students to sign a pledge of their intention to take part in it. Seminars were held on issues surrounding the strike such as ‘homelessness in Brighton’, ‘education cutbacks’ etc). Sadly, the rent strike in 1975 did not go brilliantly. The response from students was mixed; very few paid money into the strike account and there were reports of almost zero-involvement in some parts of the campus: “in York House […] only two or three out of 24 had joined the strike”25.

The summer term of 1975 really saw the end of the rent strike when “out of a total of 1,500 tenants, only about 150 joined the strike”26. This was the death knell for the rent strike, which had gone on almost a year and a half (though admittedly only limping along for some of the time). Unionews printed a declaration of surrender, writing:

“we have to accept that on this issue, this year, we have been defeated.”27

Postscript to the struggles over living conditions of 1972-75

Sort of kills the mood, doesn’t it? Sorry about that. But it would be wrong to think that 1975 was the end of student radicalism at Sussex… as I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t even the end of rent strikes! These continued to happen, though with less frequency, into the mid-1980s.

One thing that is obvious from looking at the struggles of USTA between 1972 and 1975 is that, over time, the strength and militancy of the students taking part decreased over time. Why was this? Well, it’s impossible to say with any certainty by putting together a story through the pages of the student union newspaper but it’s possible to give it a guess.

One possibility is that the university's response became increasingly heavy-handed. There’s more mention of the administration taking action against students in the 1974-75 rent strike than in 1972. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there was actually more of a crackdown, only that it took on more importance for the students and it could have been more important just because of internal issues: that is, that the movement itself was weaker. It’s impossible to gauge the degree of management backlash.

Another reason, which I feel carries more weight, is that appetite for action simply decreased over the years in question. This too could be for a variety of reasons but I feel the following two are most likely.

Firstly, at the beginning of the 1974-75 rent strike, Unionews mentioned that a “weariness” for more rent strikes had set in amongst the third years. Interestingly, these third-years would have been first-years during the victorious (and well observed) rent strike of 1972 and many would even have taken an active part it. Perhaps there was a feeling amongst them that the rent strike had become a ritualised form of protest, not really aimed at anything much, just something for fresh-out-of-school first-years and lefties. And perhaps this feeling was not the exclusive view of third-years.

Related to this, another issue could be the increasing remoteness of the issue from the university itself. Comparing the struggles which won tangible concessions from management with those which seemingly won none, we see that it is a clear division between struggles where the university was the site and target of the action and struggles where the university was the site but not the primary target (i.e. it was about grants set by government). Where the university had less control over handing out concessions it shouldn’t be surprising that it handed out less.

This could also have translated into more cynicism amongst the student body itself. Whereas the link between action and target was clear in the 1972 rent strike or the 1973 occupation for homeless students, the link between the action and target for the rent strikes over grants was less clear-cut.

Furthermore, there could also have been a feeling amongst many students that these actions contained a degree of lefty posturing. For instance, the 1974-75 rent strike was originally over an increase in campus rents but then became tied, quite superficially, to the national grants campaign. This was also seen in the 1973 homeless students’ occupation: of the seven demands made on the university only one was met and the occupation was called off. As I said earlier, this isn’t bad in itself; a serious concession was won, but it does call into question how serious the students were about the other six demands. Perhaps there was a degree of empty lefty sloganeering in these campaigns which put off students from getting involved.

Finally, there are some comments to be made about the key organisational protagonist in this period. USTA clearly was the result of student dissatisfaction with the living conditions they found themselves in and almost immediately embarked on a rent strike in January 1972. The way this struggle was concluded, with an USTA delegation taking an offer from management back to a general meeting of tenants, was true to the democratic fighting spirit in which it was set up.

However, over time, USTA seemed to become more detached from the student body it was supposed to represent. That cracks in the 1974-75 rent strike were visible from its beginning suggests a disconnect between USTA and campus tenants.

The clear desire to be seen as an ‘official’ representative of student tenants was also a problematic feature of its later demands where it asked to have a presence on several university management committees. Though the problems with such an approach are too numerous to get into here, it should be noted that there is a history of militant organisations that end up permanently on management committees that then move away from their previous militancy. And this history is very long.

Funnily enough, it would seem that USTA went a similar way. Looking at a pamphlet introducing USTA to new student-tenants in the 1980s, the pamphlet mostly deals with welcoming students to campus, where the bars and sports facilities are etc. and very little on actually struggling to improve living conditions. Again, this isn’t bad in itself and if I go to Butlins it’s useful to be given an introductory guide to the place. But clearly such material sits in stark contrast with the original fighting talk that USTA was founded on.

  • 1. As fantastical as it might seem now, there once was a time when students were given money to go to university rather then lent it and forced into years of debt for their early adult life.
  • 2. Unionews, 22nd November 1971
  • 3. Unionews, 24th January 1972
  • 4. It should be noted that this old chestnut of moving forward with unpopular policies just as everyone’s going home for the holidays has been a favourite of Sussex university authorities afraid of student and staff protests. It also happened while I was a student there.
  • 5. Unionews, 24th January 1972
  • 6. ibid.
  • 7. Unionews, 21st February 1972
  • 8. Unionews, 24th April 1972
  • 9. Unionews, 1st May 1972
  • 10. Unionews, 11th October 1972
  • 11. ibid.
  • 12. ibid.
  • 13. Unionews, 24th January 1973
  • 14. Unionews, 19th June 1973
  • 15. Unionews, 11th October 1973
  • 16. ibid.
  • 17. ibid.
  • 18. ibid.
  • 19. ibid.
  • 20. ibid. Obviously the likelihood of either happening at the time is up for debate, but the shift from encouraging people to take direct action for their own material interests to calling on people to pressure the council to make the relevant changes in policy is interesting in its own right.
  • 21. Unionews, 20th March 1974
  • 22. Unionews, 24th April 1974
  • 23. Unionews, 24th January 1974
  • 24. Unionews, 6th November 1974
  • 25. Unionews, 6th May 1975
  • 26. Unionews, 28th May 1975
  • 27. ibid.