Kasandra Tomaszewska, a first-year University College London (UCL) history student, rent striker, and activist with the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign, spoke to Solidarity.
I got involved in the rent strike very randomly and late in the process. My roommate gave me some leaflets. I didn’t get very involved but thought “it is actually a very good idea, and if it starts I will join”. Then the rent strike started and I joined.
After a week or so I took part in an interview, then another one, because they needed people to speak to the public and I was willing to do it . I got in touch with organisers and people who were involved for much longer; it snowballed a bit and I got really involved after some time. I thought it was really nice and started to be fun for me. Paradoxically the rent strike is happening in the cheapest accommodation on UCL campus (£102.97-£235.90 per week at UCL). And I wouldn’t mind paying so much if the quality was better. Most of the rent strikers got involved in because of quality.
But after being involved my approach changed; I understood that it is unfair that student accommodation is unaffordable for the majority of students. Over time I started to understand the different situations of students. For example, some students have minimum maintenance loans and can simply not afford it without part-time jobs. Or there are also students like me who are from overseas and need to work a lot to afford this accommodation. Or there are students who believe it is unfair that it is so expensive. I started in a bit of a different position from most rent strikers because I am from another country and had no idea how bad the situation was in London. I expected it to be bad but not so bad. So in the first several months I had no idea how UCL compares to the wider London situation. Then I started talking to people and meeting people outside the university who were telling me it is actually very expensive. So I think our action will not start a big uprising and a big revolution immediately but it is an important step, showing something is wrong.
Some of us took part in the March Against the Housing Bill in London, so I think the wider cooperation has already started. I have hope that our action can change something. The campaign convinced me that I can take action. To be honest, I was rather a modest person and the campaign gave me the power to take action. Second, it made me more aware of what is actually going on with housing in London. As an international student you need a lot of time to understand the situation fully. I think housing is very important for many people. If I became a part of this action, I would really like to continue. Rising tuition fees, cutting maintenance loans, cutting bursaries, rising rents, it is all part of the same picture. All of these policies from the government and management is not good for students. It is not good for the safety and stability of students.
When I had to look for a job it was hard because part-time jobs for students are hard to find, and then they are especially low paid and unstable compared to other jobs. If I need to spend time looking for a job and then working at this job, I cannot put enough effort into my study. If I cannot secure housing or I cannot secure my rent, I am stressed and can’t perform well in school. Recently, UCL removed housing and financial problems from its list of allowed extenuating circumstances for deadline extensions for coursework. It really seems like the university doesn’t care at all. I don’t believe in the university propaganda that straight after graduating we will have well paid jobs and everything will be okay. I think it will be a struggle. I don’t want to go back to my country (Poland). I would like to stay in London but if it is better for me to move somewhere else then I will. It will be a shame.