By Ben Wilson
Itâ€™s been a tempestuous few months recently at the University of London Union, a period of unrest which it seems may have finally brought the organisation to its knees. On the morning of Friday, May 3rd the University of London Council voted to shut down ULU, a body responsible for the representation of over 120,000 students across the capital.
Under the title â€˜Students Pledge to Fight ULU Closureâ€™, a press release authored by Union President Michael Chessum was released via the ULU website in which the University Councilâ€™s decision was announced.
Within the statement Chessum claims that â€œthis decision is totally illegitimate and will have a majorly negative impact on student life and representation in London: no student sat on the review panel, no student got a vote on the decision, and student responses have been ignored or brushed aside throughoutâ€
He went on to say that â€œitâ€™s not that we wonâ€™t go down without a fight â€“ we simply wonâ€™t go downâ€. With the Unionâ€™s history of integral involvement in student protest movements in the past it isnâ€™t hard to believe that there will be determined resistance from those opposed to the move.
The statement also points out that ULUâ€™s annual funding costs are Â£800,000, a large proportion of which is paid back to the University by way of rent. That sum is compared to the collective annual salaries of the Vice Chancellors who made the decision of closure, which lies in the region of roughly Â£4.1 million.
An online petition has already been created, which at the time of writing had garnered close to 2000 signatures. Commenting on the petition, ULU Fencing President James Kneller argued, â€œULU is vitally needed as it caters to many of the smaller universities such as LSE, Heythrop and Birkbeck. These colleges do not have a club of their own and so ULU is needed to cater for them.â€
However Professor Paul Webley, deputy Vice-Chancellor of UoL and chair of the review group, who also happens to be the director of one such smaller UoL university (The School of Oriental and African Studies) contradicted the argument that ULU is vital for the representation of what some regard as the more peripheral London institutions.
According to Professor Webley, the majority of students viewed ULU as â€œproviding very limited benefitsâ€, while the decision to close the Union will â€œgreatly enhance the student experience across the federal university, by enabling our colleges to support their own student unions more effectivelyâ€.
Furthermore, a statement from ULU CEO Julie Adams asserts that â€œUniversity of London Union is still here, still open and still very much activeâ€ and provides access to a report which â€œoutlines how the democratic side to ULU will be dissolved, with student representation being focused in the individual UoL collegeâ€™s Studentâ€™s Unions and through a pan-London operation.â€
Yet Chessum remains unsatisfied with this reasoning. Speaking to Roar!, he said that â€œItâ€™s fair to say there are legitimate criticisms of ULU. That’s why we have plans to integrate the voting systems with local ones, which is something that could increase voting turnout tenfold.â€
â€œIt’s a disgrace, and a threat to students’ union autonomy everywhere, that the university has decided to abolish its SU with barely any consultation. It reeks of disdain for students’ opinions, and it will rob us of our only (if for the moment imperfect) vehicle for London-wide representation.”
This move comes as just the latest, albeit incredibly significant, episode in what has been a tumultuous and often surreal era in student politics, and student life in general. In the wake of the protest movement supporting the Inanimate Carbon Rod for NUS presidency, the London Student fiasco and the closure of our very own Union nightclub Tutuâ€™s, it has to be wondered just how effective and representative the system of Student Unions still is.
With the review pointing out that fewer than 3,000 of a total of 120,000 University of London students voted in the ULU elections could it be true that, in the words of Paul Webley, â€œULU made sense in the 1950sâ€ and is merely a thing of the past?
Or is Michael Chessum right in believing that â€œWhat’s happened is that the review group has acted as cover for the university doing what some people in the university probably wanted to do all along, which is to steal our building, turn it into what they hope will be a profitable student services centre, and abolish the democratic element of the student unionâ€?
Hopefully whatever new form ULU takes will truly aid the greater representation of the student body, and that many of the invaluable services it offers such as student employment and contract housing checks will not disappear either.
You can find a link to the petition contesting the closure of ULU here: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-university-of-london-save-the-university-of-london-union-3
You can find a link to the report issued by Julie Adams here: http://ulu.co.uk/files/uol-report.pdf