How Rising London Rents are Funding Elite Private Schools

This article was originally published by Novara Media here.

Saturday saw the culmination of an incredibly successful year for the rent strike at University College London rent strike with a protest during an open day. The campaign has served to highlight the indifference of university management to the consequences of increased housing costs and has rapidly spread to other campuses.

As the rent strikers have shown, increased accommodation costs for students have been passed onto investment banks in China and the Netherlands through the management corporation, the University Partnership Programme (UPP). Alongside this story of global capital is a very British story of elite educational institutions profiting from raising rents on land they have owned for centuries.

Just round the corner from UCL, UPP has also been involved with refurbishing an old block of University of London student accommodation. From September, the Cartwright Halls will be re-opened – charging £189 per week for the cheapest room, with the most expensive costing £258. In 2012-13, the last year before refurbishment, it was still possible to share a room costing just £129 per week but this budget option no longer exists.

When the University of London began redevelopment of the halls, managers also signed a new lease on the land in July 2014. Like many London universities, the University of London does not actually own the land on which its buildings sit. Renewing the lease cost the university £17.5m, and the new 125 year lease involves an increased annual rent of £100k a year.

But where is this money going?

The land beneath Cartwright Halls belongs to the Sir Andrew Judd Foundation. Andrew Judde was a 16th century merchant who eventually became Lord Mayor of London in 1550. He used this wealth – much of it earned through trade abroad – to buy land in the City of London and St Pancras. When he died in 1558 he left this land as an endowment to fund a school in Tonbridge where he was born. His foundation, with an endowment now worth £82m, primarily serves to fund this school. Tonbridge School is now an elite private boys’ school costing £36,288 per year for boarding students, this year winning 31 Oxbridge offers.

The extortionate rents paid by students at Cartwright Halls will not only prove unaffordable to many but will actively strengthen elitist education. As a result of the deal, the school will receive over £5.5m from the Judd Foundation towards rebuilding Tonbridge School over the next five years. Under the somewhat ironic title of ‘excellence for all’, this rebuilding masterplan includes the refurbishment of the ‘Old Big School’ building into an art gallery, new ‘Olympic standard’ sports facilities costing £2m, and a new library (which contains 23,000 books) costing nearly £7m.

In contrast, state schools saw budgets for rebuilding and repairs cut by 34% under the last government.

Tonbridge School is far from alone in profiting from land ownership in central London. If you have ever bought a pint at The Lamb pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street you have indirectly funded Rugby School, which owns the whole street. Eton – with the largest endowment of any school in the UK – holds stocks and shares worth £298m and property worth a further £80m, having developed a whole suburban estate in the late 19th century. Eton’s landed wealth is dwarfed by the staggering property portfolio of Christ’s Hospital School, which is worth £142m. Until compulsory purchase in 1949, St Paul’s Boys School was also funded by the rents of working-class Londoners in Stepney. The history of landed wealth and elite schools is very ugly indeed.

These elite educational institutions – to which must of course be added the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge with their own huge endowed wealth – serve not only to produce a form of educational apartheid but are actively involved in property development and market speculation, with utter indifference to the consequences. These schools and universities have educated the imperial, British and global elite for literally centuries with all the violence that has entailed. Of course, there are caveats – this is not a glib attack on everyone who was privately educated and indeed, not all private schools share in the same wealth as these elite institutions.

The point here is that there is a deep historical and structural underpinning to many of the battles that we face. The UCL rent strike has been a struggle for affordable accommodation and is the tip of iceberg of the much broader housing crisis in London for young people. For students, this also speaks to issues of ‘access’ to education. When Andrew Grainger, UCL’s director of estates, declared: “Some people simply cannot afford to study in London and that is a fact of life” he was simply expressing the reality of elite universities and schools which pay lip service to widening participation and bursary access. Their primary social function remains the preservation of upper middle-class status, and the percentage of students in the Russell Group attending private school has remained static at around 25% since 2002 and is far higher in the more elite institutions.

So the struggle against extortionate rents in universities and in the housing market is also a struggle against the economic and cultural power of elite forms of education. These inequalities pre-date neoliberalism and are part of the deep-rooted elite infrastructure which supports and reproduces the English state. The struggle for affordable housing – in and outside the university – is also ultimately the struggle against elite schools and universities which need to be utterly and profoundly transformed, and their cultural and economic power abolished.

This transformation can only come as part of a broader struggle and shift of power within society. ‘Excellence for all’ must not be a sick joke but a political reality. Let us be clear – none of this is the ‘politics of envy’ – all we are saying is that we have had enough. The domination of society by a narrowly-educated elite has no justification, not now and not ever. It must end. To paraphrase that great imaginary British Labour leader Harry Perkins: “We are going to abolish second class education; I think everyone is first class, don’t you?”

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How to fight the right on education, housing and aspiration – and win

 

The exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions in the middle of January revealed how easy it is for Cameron to bat away arguments about the unfairness of cutting nursing bursaries and maintenance grants. Corbyn came across strongly at the end of his questions with his line of questioning with his points on nursing but Cameron’s lines about ‘uncapping aspiration’ and his argument about economic security at the end were strong and politically damaging.

 

Here’s a few Corbyn could use in reply: the new funding system is a policy of broken aspiration, lifetime debt and economic hypocrisy. Taking these last two points first, for literally millions of young people the Tories are the party of deficit-makers. For a party that continues to position itself on the economy in relation to government debt, they are strangely insistent on indebting an entire generation up to the eye-balls. This contradiction should be exploited politically and Labour quite simply never has.

 

On the issue of aspiration, picking out teachers and nurses is symbolically important: both of these are careers which became associated with upward social mobility over the 20th century. But it isn’t enough to talk about the aspiration of safe Labour voters. The greatest political weakness of the Conservative party is the economic vulnerability of the working lower-middle class which their higher education reforms are undoubtedly damaging. Poorer students will now graduate with an average of £12,500 more debt than their wealthier peers. This coincides with the broader changes in the housing market which has seen house ownership and mortgage rates fall since the financial crisis, across all income quintiles and especially for the bottom 60% of households. Fundamentally the aspiration to owner-occupancy increasingly difficult if not impossible for more and more people. Aspiration based around these norms is increasingly vulnerable – it is at least breaking if not broken.

 

Labour desperately needs to appeal to this demographic but this has to go beyond an electoral strategy. Having soundbites that people understand that we can repeat over and over again matters. But it matters not for the cynical reasons of the Conservatives – what we are engaged in is a struggle to transform the political ‘common sense’ of people and we need to build a movement which can do this. We are trying to challenge the long-term occupancy of power – not just in a political sense but in the deep transformative way that Thatcher shifted English society and culture rightwards. For the first time in my lifetime there is just the possibility that the left could move onto the front foot.

 

By talking about education and housing we pick away at two areas which are now far more vulnerable areas of social policy for the Conservatives. In these circumstances, social mobility itself as it has been conceived of, i.e. the fair chance through education of free upward (never downward) movement, is politically vulnerable. In an immediate sense, there is a clear tilting of the scales against the poorest and most debt-averse students. But this crisis runs far deeper.

 

A generation of more affluent though not rich young people, and, let us not forget this essential political point, their parents, are facing the serious likelihood of serious difficulties accessing the housing market combined with a lifetime of debt repayment. Conservative housing policy will deepen social and racial cleansing of inner-city housing, but it does so in a desperate attempt to prop-up middle-class first-time buyers. The trick for Labour is to come up with a policy which speaks to that middle-class anxiety, not because they are our priority but because their status represents the security that many aspire to. We shouldn’t reject that as bourgeois, we should acknowledge that this is the language of the everyday life that people want.

 

There is a fundamental need for a rigorously thought-out political programme from Labour which highlights these weaknesses, critiques the old models and puts something new in their place. Just as McDonnell announced with reference to cooperative models of worker ownership, ‘we cannot simply turn the clock back’ to old forms of public ownership. The same is true in higher education and we need a systematic programme for a radical alternative to back up the soundbites.

 

If as Stuart Hall argued, drawing on Gramsci, ‘every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction’ then we have to make sure we win the political argument of the current crisis. This is not just an economic crisis – the crises within education and housing are an opportunity to re-shape not only the political agenda but the deeper social and cultural assumptions which are rapidly being shown to be contradictory. Cameron and the old hegemony of the new right is vulnerable and, with Corbyn as leader, there is an opening for an offensive from the left.