6 Reasons the Defence of ULU is Vital to Students Everywhere

by Michael Chessum

31 May 2014

2013-14 has been an unlikely year of convulsion and resistance in the higher education sector. The student movement has sprung back to life with a series of local and national action supporting sector strikes, and thousands marching in London in December under the banner of #copsoffcampus. The reinvention of the student movement from the disaster of 2012, when NUS marched pointlessly to Kennington in the rain, has been remarkable.

None of this should detract, however, from the reality of the situation. Although this period has shown that the student movement is still at a much higher point than it was before the 2010, we are also fundamentally weaker in a number of respects. Nothing typifies the potential weakness of the student movement more keenly than the fact that the University of London Union (ULU) is facing closure. Here are 6 reasons the defence of ULU is vital:

1. The defence of democratic student spaces is too far down the list.

ULU is Europe’s largest student union in terms of membership, and has in recent years been one of Britain’s most radical. The University of London (UoL) plans to de-recognise ULU from 1 August, taking over the building and replacing the union with a management-run ‘services centre’. Given it has been at the heart of the student movement since 2010, the fight for ULU’s continued existence has been perversely low key in the general mix of demands over the past year.

Perhaps this is because ULU is, after all, a bureaucracy. It is run by officers and trustees, not by its 120,000 members directly. Much of its operation is a business, as much aimed at cheap beer as at social justice. Like all student unions, ULU is the product of a strange three-way marriage between the commercial model of the 1950s gentleman’s drinking club, the representative structures of trade unionism, and whatever mood happens to inhabit campus at the time – in our case, a layer of conservativism and privilege inevitably present in ‘elite’ universities combined, with the syndicalism and militancy of post-2010 Bloomsbury.

The act of fighting to defend what little and imperfect democratic space students have is – by comparison to the inspirational and vital struggles over police violence and staff pay and conditions – neither attractive nor, on the face of it, entirely coherent. However, what happens between now and 1 August may be pivotal for the future of student life and activism, both in London and across Britain.

2. If ULU goes, the precedent it sets will be dangerous.

ULU is a fairly unique organisation, representing students federally in addition to their own campus union. But it is naïve to argue – as some have done over the past year – that this uniqueness means that no precedent would be set by our demise. At a basic level this is a test of strength: if the University can get away with shutting down ULU, one of the biggest activist bases in the country, with no mandate and when the student body has clearly shown its opposition to the plans, then what hope do we have for beating the government, and what hope is there for less mobilised unions other than the goodwill of Vice Chancellors?

3. Relying on goodwill is not an option.

In the new marketised world of HE, with managerial pay spiralling and with everything from cleaning to housing to teaching being outsourced, why would University heads, who increasingly regard themselves as managers of businesses, allow student unions to exist? Commercial services are less of a challenge to corporate vision and less politically risky than democratically run unions.
Simply put, if market logic is allowed to develop at the present pace and spread into the sphere of student representation, it is implausible that student unions will exist in their current form in a decade’s time.

4. The University of London is a shining example of the new dystopia in HE.

UoL is in the process of becoming a business-only operation. Academically it has become a husk, teaching almost no students and existing merely in order to provide central services to member Colleges, as well as running its highly lucrative distance learning scheme, the International Programmes. The internal movers and shakers in the University are almost entirely focussed on their next job, and its Vice Chancellor, Adrian Smith, seems to display no loyalty to the longevity of the central academic institution whatsoever.

With many of its member colleges actively wishing for its demise, UoL is a suicidal institution, and is in the process of abolishing yet another connection to the campus community – its union. Because of this peculiar situation, the University has become a window onto a future in which academic institutions are run entirely by and for managers.

5. UoL are the standard bearers for outsourcing, much to the interest of university managers nationally.

As well as abolishing its student union and removing student reps from all committees (which it did in 2007), UoL has become a pioneer of outsourcing and attacks on low paid staff. It has initiated a policy of co-option with its local Unison branch, and refused to recognise alternative unions when they have been set up. This summer, the University is due to sack 80 workers in the Garden Halls of residence so that the halls can be demolished and rebuilt, and then handed over to private providers. When students occupied management offices – a relatively regular tactic – managers called in one of the worst police intrusions ever onto a university campus in the UK, which saw 41 people arrested in two days.

Students and left-wing commentators will not be the only ones watching this process unfold. While we may look on in horror, university managers on campuses across the country will be watching to see how much the University of London can get away with, and we must be willing to fight tooth and nail on every aspect of it – including ULU’s closure.

6. Our ability and capacity to dissent is actively being eroded.

Over the past few years, ULU’s building has been the home of almost every major HE movement. In 2010, ULU hosted the weekly London Student Assembly – a large, disorganised gathering which called days of action and helped mobilise the anti-fees movement. It has been the starting point of every national student demonstration in recent years, it is where ‘book blocs’ are planned and banners are painted, and where a large bulk of leaflets is printed. This year, ULU was the base of operations for #copsoffcampus and 3 Cosas, giving an office to the cleaners’ union, the IWGB. Every time there is a need for people to come together at short notice or without interference from college managers, ULU is where we go.

This year, ULU has made sure that London-wide student representation continues to exist, and is expanded to cover all of the capital’s 800,000 students. NUS London will be holding its founding conference on July 12th, and it is likely to be a much more radical and campaigning body than NUS is nationally. But no amount of representation or elected committees will ever compensate for what ULU currently provides. Managers and Vice Chancellors in the University know all of this, and that is precisely why are shutting it down.

Students and activists will be meeting at ULU next week to organise a campaign of resistance in the last two months before 1 August. If you want to be involved, get in touch by emailing [email protected] for information.

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