Students who endured noisy, rat-infested accommodation have won £100,000 in compensation from University College London (UCL) after a bruising seven-month campaign.
On Thursday, UCL’s complaints panel awarded 87 former residents of the student accommodation at Campbell House West, near Euston, around £1,300 each, equivalent to a term’s rent.
The students had been embroiled in a dispute with their university over living conditions described as “unbearable”, caused by demolition work that left them unable to sleep or study, as well as rodent infestations.
Jamal Rizvi, 19, a former Campbell House West resident and rent strike participant, who has received compensation, said: “Students who wanted to revise in their rooms couldn’t do so. In rooms nearest to the works, mirrors were bouncing off walls and desks were shaking.
“We took decibel readings in every room on our smartphones and in those closest it reached up to 95 decibels, and up to 75 in the rooms furthest away. The university responded with reluctant acceptance and tried to brush it under the rug.”
Rizvi said he was woken up at 8am most mornings and sometimes earlier. Camden council’s rules for noisy construction work state that it cannot begin before 8am.
Rizvi added: “There were stairs leading from the street to the basement kitchens and the rats could just go down the steps.”
The dispute highlights students’ increased willingness to complain at inadequate facilities, as universities attempt to increase undergraduate numbers and maximise revenue from student accommodation.
At UCL, about 60 students began withholding rent in protest at the conditions in early May, accusing the university of breaching the student accommodation code.
UCL management responded with threats of academic sanctions and expulsion if arrears were not paid – a position it reversed after union officials pointed out that such sanctions were illegal.
Students first raised their concerns with UCL managers in November 2014 but were unsatisfied with the university’s response. The university’s complaints panel has since described its response as “far below the standards that would normally be expected”.
The panel criticised UCL’s handling of the case, saying its responses had shown “a lack of empathy” and were “disingenuous to the students concerned”.
Giulia Gandolfo, a second-year information management student and rent strike participant, said: “It’s great to hear that the efforts of all those who were involved in the protest have finally paid off. I feel that we have finally achieved a fair compensation.”
Angus O’Brien, UCL union’s halls and accommodation representative, said: “Despite the clear, devastating effects on the residents’ daily life, studies and overall quality of life, no effective preventative action was taken by UCL – its priorities lay not in the education and wellbeing of the students but the monetisation of the estate.”
In a letter addressed to O’Brien seen by the Guardian, Prof Anthony Smith, vice-provost responsible for education and student affairs and chair of UCL’s complaints panel, spoke of “insufficient consideration to the likely impact on students of the building work … there was no plan to mitigate the level of disturbance; and the information provided to students before taking up their accommodation failed to give sufficient detail of the demolition works to enable students to understand the full extent of the nature of these works prior to moving in.”