Last Friday, the University of London decided to close down its student union. The decision was made by a council of college principals – no student sat on the review that recommended the closure, and students had no vote on what amounts to a major blow against our interests.
If the review's recommendations are implemented, the union would be abolished by 2014, stripped of its building and resources. Its democratic structures will be farmed off somewhere else – though where this will be, or how it will be funded, remains unspecified.
Like many others studying in the London area, I’m angry about this threat to our union. In the last week, over 4,000 people have signed the petition condemning the closure, and calling for the union to be saved. But why are we so bothered?
In the last few years, students have seen our tuition fees tripled and our universities come under threat of cuts and privatisation, with diminishing employment prospects to look forward to at the end of it. The situation is no better for people studying in London. The notoriously high cost of living hits students hard, and many of us live in poor accommodation at extortionate price.
In a city the size of the capital, and at an institution the size of the University of London, we need to have an organisation to fight our corner on a city-wide level. Having student unions at our individual colleges is important, but the only way we can campaign effectively for decent services, affordable housing and against rip-off fees is by doing so collectively. Recently, ULU has taken up campaigns for cheaper housing, for decent pay and conditions for University cleaning staff and initiatives to support and organise the growing number of students that work. For students at small universities or those on the outskirts of London, ULU has been a crucial tool for making sure we get a fair say.
The political role of ULU is important, but it provides much more. It gives students from different colleges across the city the opportunity to get involved in sports clubs, leagues and societies along with other students from a wider range of institutions. In an expensive city with few freely available social spaces, ULU provides an important facility to socialise and take part in activities with like-minded students.
The University have put together a slick PR offensive, and it’s worth examining some of their arguments. They argue that ULU is too expensive to maintain. But of the relatively meagre grant they pay to the union each year, the vast majority is taken straight back in rent. They also claim that closing the union down wouldn’t change much, since the University would take over many of its services and facilities. I think this approach is flawed. A students’ union provides us with societies, clubs and services that are run by ourselves, and responsive to our needs. We would have no such democratic control over a body taken out of our hands by management.
Perhaps most importantly, if this decision goes ahead it will establish a precedent whereby the managers of a university can whittle down, decimate and abolish unions arbitrarily. This would be dangerous at the best of times, let alone in a period when publicly funded higher education is coming under attack from government and corporate interests alike. We need unions that are more than just bars and night-clubs – we need democratic organisations that give us a voice.
The University of London likes to emphasise how much they value the student experience. I’d like to believe them. If they mean what they say, they should reverse their undemocratic decision, respect our rights, and save our union from abolition.
Tom Harris studies English at Royal Holloway, University of London