In 2012, I arrived back for my second year in Oxford to a perfect storm of bumbling contractors, inaccessible pathways and JCB-branded accommodation. Every morning I awoke to the sound of someone drilling, seemingly into my headboard. Every afternoon the fire alarm would malfunction and force us out onto the street.
Ah, what memories. In compensation, we were given a 50 per cent rent reduction for a term and a half. Compared with Exeter’s demands, this was a pretty staggering victory.
Colleges are businesses – as much as they would be loathe to admit it. I’m a Pembrokian and financial mismanagement recently brought us to the brink of bankruptcy (and coined the timeless pun: PemBroke). Now, the college is solvent, successful, and has just built a £30 million new development.
But it has come at a cost. Rent rates are some of the highest in Oxford, there’s a compulsory meal plan and room banding is done via a free market system, rather than a ballot. It’s one of the reasons why Pembroke has the largest private school intake of any Oxford college (not ChristChurch as some are led to believe) with only 46.2 per cent state acceptance over the last three years. That’s bad on paper and in practice, but Pembroke is now financially stable.
Exeter, like Pembroke, has limited financial endowments (£48,763,000) and assets (£68,650,000) and cannot be as generous as St John’s, ChristChurch or Queen’s. Most colleges are still self-regulating and rely on financial sustainability.
If colleges are businesses, students are customers. You pay for your university experience and you expect a certain level of service in return. At Exeter you are paying exponentially more than a St John’s student for an experience that is likely to be similar or inferior, and we shouldn’t be expected to passively accept that.
Striking is an effective means of pressurising colleges, but not because it will significantly impact their financial yield. The Exeter hall-strikers have already paid their battels with the extortionate £840 catering charge, so the strike is a symbolic gesture. It is equivalent to Tweeting angrily at a company’s customer services department.
We achieved the 50 per cent rent reduction at Pembroke because the college feared negative publicity, student dissatisfaction, future years living out and myriad other concerns. So the Exeter student demonstration is not futile – it will serve as a mass consumer feedback session and the message will be communicated publically.
While Pembroke’s rent reduction was negotiated without a strike, Exeter’s JCR is in a strong position. A demonstration of student dissatisfaction, with support from OUSU and covered across the university might not banish the £840 charge with the flick of a wand, but it strengthens their negotiating position enormously.
Their JCR President has an arsenal of objective data and student feedback at his disposal. If I were seeking a rent freeze, then that would fill me with positivity. It is unlikely that all demands will be met but the protest will force action.
by Nick Hilton
Viva la revolución! For many, the liberal sentiment behind the chants of Oxford students is undermined by their affiliation with a university which represents everything wrong with the British class system. Setting this small irony aside for a moment, Exeter does seem to have a problem that needs solving.
An £840 catering charge on top of payment for meals every day, is excessive. Exeter JCR tells us that the average student spends around £13.00 a day eating in hall, with the surcharge making it the most expensive undergraduate college. It ranks bottom among colleges for living cost satisfaction, and according to OUSU, it is the second most expensive college in terms of student living.
All this is likely to have an adverse impact on access and make the day to day lives of students more problematic. When JCRs feel that the college has treated them unjustly, they should certainly protest. In this instance, a boycott seems to be the simplest and most obvious method for demonstrating discontent. However, I don’t think that it will have the intended results.
This is because Exeter’s catering charge is paid upfront. Over an 8 week term, students have to pay £5.00 a day even if they don’t eat in hall. If the aim of the boycott is to withhold money from the college to force those in charge to acquiesce in students’ demands through financial necessity; it is important to remember that Exeter students have already handed over the money. The JCR is probably wasting its time.
But even when boycotts are successful, this is undercut by a sense of collusion with the enemy. In 2011, St Hugh’s boycotted formal hall because of a ban on bringing in alcohol. The price of tickets was raised to include a moderate amount of drink provided by the college.
The boycott worked, the ticket price was lowered. But then the JCR released a statement that said it had accepted the offer “in the spirit of compromise”. Not because they thought it was the right thing to do, but because it didn’t tread on the toes of their superiors.
Compromise – code for abandoning your convictions to accommodate those of your oppressors.
Then again, perhaps the term “oppressors” is too strong a term to describe people that are charging you a bit too much for a three course dinner.
However, the fact remains. Boycotts are the safest form of civil disobedience. There’s no law against not attending hall. Or not riding the bus to work. Or not buying Nestlé because you disagree with their business practices. As protests go, it’s pretty safe. It’s not like you’ll get beaten, or “killed, or worse expelled!” It is a kind of protest that shows your opinion, without kicking up too much of a fuss. It works on the assumption that it’s best to play by the rules.
If I were an Exeter College student, I’d call off the boycott in favour of a more radical approach. I’d wait for my battels to come in next term and I wouldn’t pay them. They college can’t sent everyone down, after all. There would definitely be a financial incentive to listen to the JCR then.
by Billy Beswick