How do they spend our rent?

October 29, 1999

The Cambridge rent row highlights the lack of accountability and secrecy of the colleges, says Eleanor O'Keeffe

The angry chants of the thousand or so student demonstrators at Saturday's rally in Cambridge were in protest against a recent proposal by college bursars to increase student rents by between 33 and 47 per cent within the next five years.

Such a rise would push the price of student accommodation up to about Pounds 70 a week, well above the national average. It would become more expensive to study in Cambridge than anywhere outside London.

Mat Coakley, the president of the student union at King's College, has resigned in protest and 240 students have gone on a "rent strike", refusing to pay their college bills. Students at other colleges have followed suit, and the protest is threatening to escalate.

This is because the issue of access to Cambridge - one of the most elitist of institutions - is important to students. There is a real fear that the rent increases will bar all but the most affluent from a Cambridge education.

Nationally, 93 per cent of students are educated at state schools - yet they make up only 50 per cent of students at Cambridge, with the rest drawn from public schools. Many of the students who are protesting say that they will not be able to afford to stay at Cambridge if the rent hikes go through.

Another related issue is the changing nature of student-university relations caused by the introduction of tuition fees last October.

Though this is a national issue, it is in Cambridge that the traditional relationship between university and students has been most affected. The reason for this lies in the paternalistic nature of most Cambridge colleges.

The upside of this paternalism is that it has created the intimate atmosphere most students enjoy in their colleges.

The downside is that it has led to a lack of accountability within the system that is quite appalling.

Last week's issue of Varsity, the Cambridge student newspaper, denounced this lack of accountability. It demanded that college authorities "Tell students where the rent money goes". Efforts so far to find out - or to establish how much future rent rises are likely to be - have been met with a frosty rebuke by the head of the college Bursars' Committee, Charles Larkum.

In a letter to the Cambridge University student union, Larkum stated explicitly what many university fellows apparently believe - that students have no right to know how the colleges spend their money or why they operate as they do.

This attitude is no longer acceptable. Students who are paying for their education have a right to expect something in return, and the very least this should include is information from college authorities.

In seeking value for their money, the striking students and their many supporters are demanding both respect and transparency from their colleges.

Until they get it, their protests should continue.

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