University College London has agreed to pay nearly £300,000 compensation to students who were forced to live in noisy, vermin-infested accommodation, just weeks after refunding £120,000 in a similar case.
An internal complaints panel found that students living at Hawkridge House in Kentish Town last year had endured “unacceptable” living conditions, and that there had been no plan to mitigate the impact of building works at the property.
The judgement, which followed a rent strike by many of the 238 residents, said that UCL should pay them a refund equivalent to nine weeks’ rent. The UCL Cut the Rent campaign said that this would amount to £1,197 each, totalling £285,000, although a UCL spokesman said that the figure was closer to £270,000.
Last month UCL paid £120,000 compensation to 87 students who complained about noise and vermin infestation at Campbell House West near Euston. In this case, the Competition and Markets Authority said that the institution was likely to have breached consumer law by imposing academic sanctions on students who had taken part in a rent strike.
Angus O’Brien, the UCL Union halls and accommodation representative, said that cases would have “major ramifications” for the student housing movement.
“The basis of the relationship between university and its student residents in halls, in which the student is treated merely as a consumer fit for exploitation, has been challenged, and a precedent has been set for future student action as rent strikes and disruptive forms of protest have been proven to be immensely effective,” he said. “Students should now prepare to utilise these methods on university-wide scales in [the] fight for affordable rent costs and access to education.”
The Hawkridge House complaint, which was submitted by 48 students, said that residents’ sleep and study had been disturbed by building works, including drilling of external walls, some of which happened outside agreed hours. Students complained that workers on scaffolding invaded their privacy, and had made racist comments on two occasions.
The complaint also said that mice and rats had been spotted in the building, and that UCL had demonstrated “mistreatment, indifference and general disregard” towards residents.
The complaints panel unanimously upheld the students’ concerns, adding that the university’s attempts to engage with students and its offers of compensation to some of them “demonstrated a lack of empathy towards the students’ circumstances and an understanding or appreciation of what would be an acceptable student experience”. Information provided to students “failed to give sufficient detail of the building works to enable students to understand the full extent of the nature of these works prior to moving in”, the judgement says.
“Overall the living conditions with which the residents of Hawkridge House were faced with were unacceptable and their experiences were not in keeping with those expected for students of UCL,” writes Rex Knight, the vice-provost (operations).