Orchard Court at Murray Edwards, where campaigners claim there are problems with mice and mould Simon Lock

A petition calling for rents cuts and reduced bills at Murray Edwards College has by signed by almost a third of the College’s undergraduates in less than a week.

Signatories are calling on Medwards to make significant cuts to rental costs, including a 20% reduction in the rent at Pearl House, where all first year undergraduates are housed. In response, the College has emphasised the availability of student bursaries, and the JCR has warned the petition could “put off” prospective applicants.

“We wanted to demonstrate to college staff that this is a top priority issue for us,” said Kate Litman, one of the rent campaigners at Medwards.

Discontent with rising rent costs and additional charges is growing across several colleges. Earlier this month, CUSU Council backed ‘Cambridge, Cut The Rent’, a nascent campaign group pushing for rent reductions. Since then, Magdalene and Robinson JCRs have both backed motions opposing rent increases, and some other common rooms have held meetings on the issue.

Shannon Bernard Healey, a member of the Cambridge, Cut the Rent campaign who was recently elected to the CUSU Part-Time Executive, said: “Students across Cambridge are rallying against unfair accommodation conditions, and demanding better. Cambridge’s mission statement includes a commitment to ‘the widest possible student access to the University’. Extortionate rents and poor living conditions run contrary to that.”

Almost 120 Medwards undergraduates have signed the petition to the College, which last year had a total of 374 undergraduates and 114 postgraduates.

Campaigners at Medwards say rents have increased above the rate of inflation, and have also argued for the abolition of a £220 ‘overhead’ charge and £40 Wi-Fi charge that all residents have to pay. They claim that undergraduates are facing “unacceptably high” rental costs, particularly first years who are accommodated in Pearl House, where rent is £1,825 per full term including additional costs according to the petition.

The petition says that high rents are an access and welfare issue, and that “Poor quality accommodation and the disruption of maintenance work has a negative impact upon student experience and academic work”. It says that high rents “seriously undermine” the College’s claims to being accessible.

It additionally calls for “significant and immediate action” from the college to resolve issues of “poor quality” in some rooms. Campaigners say that accommodation in Orchard Court, the college’s oldest housing block, “is of poor standard, with some students having problems with mice and mould”.

Dame Barbara Stock, president of Murray Edwards, said students experiencing financial difficulties should speak to the CollegeFCO

“Rent has always been a sore point at Murray Edwards,” said Kate Litman. “Students are particularly outraged by the fact that all first years live in accommodation which costs £1,825 a term with no cheaper options.”

“It is easy for the college to brush aside individual complaints and we wanted to ensure our issues were taken seriously,” she said.

The petition has not been backed by Medwards’ student union, MECSU, who voted narrowly on Monday to withhold support, focusing instead on working directly with the College. MECSU’s president, Miranda Nicholson, did not attend the meeting, but said she opposed the petition for several reasons.

“The meeting on Monday was poorly attended and though there was a small majority of people voting against the campaign versus for it (5–4), it is not clear what the result would have been had the whole JCR voted,” she told Varsity. “For that reason, I am reluctant to say that as a JCR we ‘support’ or ‘do not support’ the campaign, because that would suggest the whole JCR was in agreement.”

She described the petition as “misleading and not detailed enough to provide sufficient basis for us to back”, adding “As the liaising body between the students and the staff, the JCR would like to see the campaign’s desire to have a dialogue with the College, rather than outright attacking them, before we endorse it”.

“We believe the campaign should be focused towards a Uni-wide approach as that is the place where we are likely to have more luck, as the College does not have it in their capacity to reduce rent,” she said.

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“The campaign has the potential to harm access efforts – Murray Edwards funds significant bursaries to support students who cannot afford their rents and there is also a finance tutor for students to seek advice from. Any student that is experiencing hardship whilst at the College will be supported. We feel the rent campaign may harm access and prospective students and offer holders may be put off coming to the College in fear of unaffordable rents.”

Nicholson said that MECSU recently held an open meeting with the College’s president, senior tutor and bursar at which they “worked through a number of issues”.

“The College illustrated that they are working with the university to improve funding for students from low income families,” Nicholson said, “and for those from the ‘squeezed middle’, and we would like to work with the college to improve provisions that are in place for those that are experiencing difficulty financially. Additionally, the College is open to changing the accommodation that is on offer to first year students, so that they have a wider range of choice financially, if that is what the students believe would be beneficial.”

“Unfortunately, due to the uniformity of our accommodation (as it was only built 50 years ago, unlike many other colleges’ accommodation), it would be difficult to increase the range of pricing. For example, they simply cannot charge different amounts for two rooms of a very similar quality/size/appearance,” she added.

Medwards’ president, Dame Barbara Stocking, said that the College was aware of students’ concerns, and emphasised the availability of bursaries for students experiencing financial hardship.

“We are an open College and welcome the opportunity to discuss issues with students,” Stocking said. “We have already held one open event this week to discuss the issues raised around rent and will continue that dialogue.”

“We understand that rents are a very significant issue for our students. This College was built on the founding principles of being open to all outstanding young women, no matter what their background, and this continues to be true today. We firmly believe that money should not be a prohibiting factor for anyone taking up their place. That’s why we contribute more than a quarter of a million pounds every year to bursary and hardship funds, both in the College and University-wide, that support our students to get the most from Cambridge. We encourage any student experiencing financial difficulties to come and talk to us.”

Magdalene students launched their own petition on Tuesday, which campaigners say has received 115 signatures so far. A similar petition at Robinson has not received as much immediate support, with 26 signatories since its launch on the same day