By Robyn Banks
It is a time of extraordinary potential for change in UK Higher Education. Labour’s promise to end tuition fees has defied the critics and united many behind Corbyn’s political project. But what will the implications for universities be if this comes to pass? And what can we do to leverage this progress? In this series, the Norwich Radical and Bright Green are bringing together perspectives from across the sector to explore these questions.
Up and down the UK, from Edinburgh to Brighton, students are building alternatives to existing, exploitative housing and food practices. How? By creating co-operatives! These alternative ways of organising are expanding and flourishing at a rate never seen before, as students look to take their lives into their own hands, in defiance of the rising cost of living and exploitative landlords and businesses. The founding of Student Co-operative Homes, a launch pad organisation for potential student housing co-ops across the UK founded by the grassroots network Students for Co-operation and supported by national co-op federation Co-Ops UK, demonstrates the growing support for these independent, democratic projects.
The need for new solutions has become urgent since the 2010 tuition fees increase. Private landlords, universities themselves, and upsettingly even Students’ Unions have driven up their prices in the hope of making a profit from the increasing numbers of students coming to university, pushing up the cost of living with minimal regard for the ethics of profiting from the provision of the most essential of items, food and housing.
Whilst this is sadly endemic in wider capitalist society, students have only started bearing the brunt of it in the last eight years as the costs have shifted from institutions and landlords to students themselves. This can be seen in the way that the quality of housing has continued to drop, with students expected to live in wholly unacceptable conditions, simply because it allows for the continued rise in profits for private landlords.
Successive governments are also complicit in this profiteering. Since 2010 the Tories, supported for the most part by the Lib Dems during the coalition years, have systematically cut the number and size of grants and bursaries available to students. This forces students to take out more loans, making them more vulnerable to exploitation by the market, as the price of food and rent is linked to the amount of debt that they’ll have at the end of their degree.
In these dire times, students are looking to pick up where others have failed and run these essential services for themselves. Food co-ops offer students a chance to be a part of a group of like minded people who can use their collective purchasing power to buy food in bulk at wholesale prices, as well as purchase more local and ethical products than might be available in university and union outlets. Student housing co-ops bring students together into legal entities that can raise funds to acquire property for those students to live in and manage themselves along inclusive, participatory lines.
Student co-ops are essential now – but what role would they play in a post-fees world? Would they even be needed? Without fees, the commodification of students and their degrees will wind down, and universities and Student’s Unions will no longer need to squeeze them for every last penny. In this climate, co-ops will take on a different image within the student movement and the communities that they interact with.
Students can make a real change in the way that housing is commodified and sold to us
This change in the way that students are viewed could create a chance for Student food co-ops to play a greater role in their SUs. Currently, most SU food outlets are either outsourced to a chain retailer like Spar or a part of NUSSL, the NUS purchasing group. Students currently don’t have a say on how this happens or, bar a few motions on BDS and the Nestle boycott in some SUs, on the items that are stocked in their shop. But as the perception of students changes after the abolition of fees, food co-ops will have an opportunity to be more involved in democratically shaping the food services at their SU. If SUs are willing to learn from co-operative models, we would not only see more student involvement in the selection and purchasing of items, but also a change in the way that prices are created and set, leading to cheaper and more accessible SU shops. It would also be an opportunity for SUs to develop more ethical sourcing policies, buying more goods from local producers, as well as more organic, free range and free trade items, through co-operative connections.
For Student housing co-ops, the post-fees world wouldn’t be quite as rosy. Although students would no longer be viewed solely as sources of profit by universities and SUs, the abolition of fees is not likely to change the behaviour of private landlords and estate agents, or the exploitative nature of the wider property market. Exactly how students’ union funding will work under Labour’s new higher education policy is not yet clear. If the current model of block grants continues, SUs may be looking to venture into the realm of more independent, co-operative economics.
Supporting the foundation of a student housing co-op in their community is a win-win for SUs. By acting as a benevolent leaseholder for a new co-op, an SU can simultaneously help to deal with one of the biggest issues students face and generate long-term sustainable income for the SU. There are three student housing co-ops established in the UK currently, in Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sheffield. With more SU support, and the movement of attitudes from competition to co-operation that could occur post-fees, nascent student housing co-op projects such as those in Norwich, Nottingham and Glasgow would have an easier time of finding funding, as would other brand new co-op projects across the country. The establishment of more housing co-ops opens the possibility of wider effects on the private rental sector, demonstrating by example that there are more viable alternatives to exploitative existing practices. Students can make a real change in the way that housing is commodified and sold to us, reaffirming the status of good housing as an essential human right.
The post-fees world would still need co-ops, and could be fertile ground for them to flourish. If SUs get behind and support these independent student initiatives, they’ll take off like never before in the student movement, giving students more control of how they live. Whilst the post-fees world seems like a long way off, when it does happen we will see a culture change across the board towards a better, more co-operative campuses, unions and university communities.
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