Students at Columbia and the University of Manchester Are Rejecting Austerity in Higher Ed

Across the world, universities have seen rising tuition costs, bloated administrations, and worsening conditions for students in recent decades. By organizing a rent strike at the University of Manchester and a tuition strike at Columbia, undergraduates at the two schools are drawing a line in the sand against higher-ed austerity.

Students who are on rent strike wave from the window of an accommodation tower block that they have occupied in protest in Manchester, England. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

This November, student organizers at the University of Manchester organized a rent strike, which won the largest ever concession from a British university in response to student protests. Students are drawing attention to the extortionate rents and appalling conditions in residential halls that have come as a result of universities’ monopoly on student accommodation and mismanagement during the pandemic.

This December, student organizers from Columbia Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) have gathered the support of more than three thousand students for a tuition strike in January, which would be the largest in American history. The tuition strike aims to win not only a reduction in the cost of attendance, but more democratic control of how Columbia’s endowment is spent.

The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have been catalysts for student activism in both countries, but the students are responding to longstanding problems in higher education of prioritizing financial growth and expansion over student and faculty needs.

Many young people in the United Kingdom and United States who were inspired by the respective campaigns of Jeremey Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have been disappointed by recent political developments in both countries, as the Labour and Democratic parties’ leaderships have both worked to marginalize the Left.

The organization of student strikes has demonstrated how young people can channel this energy into direct action outside of electoral politics. Students around the world should join in — something organizers from University of Manchester Rent Strike and Columbia YDSA will focus on tonight in an international town hall on how to turn local, direct action campaigns into a global wave of student movements.

The University of Manchester’s student rent strike and occupation forced the university to concede a 30 percent rent cut for all students in halls for the first semester, equivalent to up to £1,000 for every student. This concession is the largest rent strike victory for students in British history.

Having been treated like cash cows, ferried onto an unsafe campus which at its peak had the highest number of COVID cases in the entire country, the notion that the university and government had any serious regard for students’ well-being was dropped once rent and tuition checks arrived. The university used its monopoly on first-year accommodation to charge extortionate rent for what were often crumbling, flooding, and rat-infested halls.

In response, this cohort of students prepared to strike for the basic expectations of affordable and decent living standards, fueled by being charged full tuition for a far-from full university experience.

Students organized a campaign against the university management, which included the occupation of a nineteen-story tower, and was boosted by scandals such as racial profiling and the Vice Chancellor lying on national television. Eventually, students forced the university to capitulate. Teenage students went up against university executives who had attempted to ignore, dismiss, and delegitimize them — and won.

Students occupying university housing in Manchester. (@rentstrikeUoM / Twitter)

It was a rare taste of political triumph for leftist students, having seen Labour defeated in 2019 and living most of their lives under the Conservatives’ austerity regime. For the first-year students who participated in the rent strike, this was their first experience of collective action, spurred to action by grotesque mistreatment from university and government alike.

Twenty universities are now preparing their own rent strike campaigns to launch next semester. Now with the building of a network of student solidarity across campuses nationally and participation in the next rent strike looking to far eclipse October’s, Manchester’s victory can help lead to a transformative fight against the marketization of higher education.

In New York, Columbia University students have turned to a tuition strike as a last-resort tactic to force their administration to finally address students’ demands. This year, Columbia has ignored several different campaigns to reduce tuition during the pandemic and divest from fossil fuels, gentrification in Harlem, and companies that enable human rights abuses in Palestine. The tuition strike brings these movements’ demands together, pressuring Columbia to invest in students and faculty rather than real estate expansion and financial growth driven by abusive and polluting companies.

As in Manchester, the Columbia tuition strike has gained support from many students who would not usually participate in such actions. For the first two months, the campaign gained support from several hundred with past engagement with radical movements. But as the campaign has gained momentum, thousands of new students have joined.

These students have seen President Lee Bollinger refuse to join other university presidents by taking a cut to his $4.6 million salary; they have witnessed Columbia refuse to join other colleges and universities like Williams, Georgetown, and Princeton in offering tuition cuts to their students during the pandemic, despite the fact that Columbia has $814 million set aside specifically for such “unexpected costs“; and they have realized Columbia will not change unless its students force it to.

After gaining national press coverage and attention on social media, dozens of student groups have reached out to Columbia YDSA to ask how they can organize a similar action at their schools. These messages inspired the arrangement of tonight’s international town hall, to help inspire similar movements at other universities.

The problem of exorbariant tuition fees is a national one. For decades, the rise in tuition has greatly outpaced inflation at both public and private universities. This trend has corresponded with a greater need for a college degree to secure a stable career, after disastrous free trade agreements have eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs. American students have reluctantly accepted tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt because they have had little other choice.

The tuition strike at Columbia is the first step in refusing this choice. But students across the country must take similar action to ensure that other schools follow suit if we’re to reverse this trend of rising tuition costs.

International solidarity amongst students is vital, because the neoliberal logic driving the politics of austerity that is destroying higher education is international, too. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power in the 1980s and reduced government spending and enacted tax cuts for the rich, laying the groundwork for the starvation of higher education. These leaders also oversaw a period in which international lending institutions forced underdeveloped countries to cut spending on public goods like education in order to receive loans.

The problems of higher education extend beyond the offices of well-paid administrators. Thus, it is important that this wave of student movements inspire further direct action on university campuses and show the next generation of students the power of direct action to force political institutions to recognize demands.

Students today understand the neoliberal status quo is not working. These direct actions can show them how to change it.