University College London faces bullying accusations after 'threatening student journalist with dismissal'

Exclusive: Rebecca Pinnington claims she was threatened with repercussions after obtaining classified forecasts of student accommodation income

University College London has been accused of bullying after a student journalist was warned she could face dismissal for obtaining classified forecasts showing that the university expected to generate increased income from student accommodation.

The free speech row comes amid an increasingly bitter “rent strike” at the university, as hundreds of students withhold money in protest at rising accommodation fees.

An internal report detailing financial forecasts for the next three years was left openly accessible to university staff and students via a UCL executive’s Microsoft Outlook Calendar last month.

It is understood that the document contained forecasts that the university would make an increased cash surplus from its student accommodation this year.

Student-journalist Rebecca Pinnington, one of many UCL students and staff able to access the document, was threatened with disciplinary action - potentially including expulsion or court action - after publishing an article revealing its existence on UCLU news website Pi Media.

No figures from the document were disclosed in the article, but Ms Pinnington told The Independent that she was threatened with repercussions if she published confidential information.

“I felt intimidated, anxious and scared,” said Ms Pinnington, 21, who is president of the student-run website. “As a student journalist I felt sad because this was information that was interesting and integral to student life, but it was made very clear that if I were to publish anything more I could lose my degree.”  

In a meeting set up with UCL Vice Provost Rex Knight, Ms Pinnington was asked to sign an agreement to “immediately deliver up or destroy all copies of the UCL Confidential Information” in her possession.

“Mr Knight said he knew he couldn’t make anyone unread documents, but that he couldn’t allow Pi Media to publish anything on it,” said Ms Pinnington. “All the documents had to be deleted or anyone involved would be disciplined - which to me meant dismissal from the college. He presented me with the letter and said I had to sign it.”

The Independent has seen a copy of the written agreement, which makes clear that UCL reserved the right to pursue action including dismissal against Ms Pinnington if she did not hand over the files. 

It reads: “UCL has the ability to invoke various sanctions following an event of unauthorised use, including, against individuals, the Student Disciplinary Code with penalties that could include suspension from the use of all UCL computing facilities for extended periods, dismissal without notice and potential exposure to court proceedings.”

Ms Pinnington, who is in the fourth year of a French and German degree has now decided to go public - despite the risk to her future - to challenge the university’s attitude to free expression. She said: “I think the role of student media is to hold the university to account and question things,” she said. “I just wanted to report facts and that was opposed.  Universities should be about the free exchange of ideas and yet we’re not allowed to publish what was freely available.”

Last night Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, expressed shock at UCL’s conduct. She said: “It is astonishing that - because of its own mistakes - the university should now be putting pressure on the editor of the student paper over a story she reported with information obtained entirely legitimately. This is the hallmark of the best kind of public interest journalism and UCL must stop trying to censor Ms Pinnington.”

Student Vix Nowak from Cut the Rent, the group behind the UCL rent strike, said: “UCL management’s repeated attempts to bully and threaten students are indefensible and we will make our outrage clear at the demonstration at UCL on Thursday. The rent strike will not be intimidated.”

In a statement, UCL denied threatning the student. “No disciplinary action has been taken and no student threatened with expulsion. We were made aware of a potential breach of our computer regulations governing the downloading of confidential content, These are standard regulations that would expect to find in place at any major organisation. The student involved was made aware that any publication or passing to a third party of material downloaded in breach of regulations was a potential disciplinary matter, and the student agreed to comply with the regulations.”

The UCL rent strike has seen more than 500 UCL students living in residential halls pledge to withhold their rent until fees are cut by 40 per cent, in protest against “soaring” rent prices and disputes over how student rent is spent,

Earlier this month The Independent revealed that Head of UCL Estates Andrew Grainger had enraged protesting students by telling them it was a  “fact of life” some people cannot afford to study in London.