Senior managers and academics within the University of London are proposing the closure of the University of London Union (ULU).

In documents seen by The Cheese Grater, UoL managers and academics in the ‘ULU Review Group’ advise that the union have its democratic functions stripped and its assets handed over to the University. Under the plans, ULU’s sabbatical officers would be removed and their representative functions transferred to the NUS. The student space and services in Malet street would be preserved, but would be brought under University management. (The Review’s findings can be viewed in full on our website.)

If its student space and activities are handed over to the university and its elected officers removed, ULU will cease to exist as a democratic student organisation. With the union’s lease on its Malet street building expiring in July 2014, ULU could be gone in little over a year.

The swimming pool at in the Malet Place ULU building
Central London’s largest swimming to change management?

Totally Radical

The Review Group behind the proposals was established by the Unversity’s Council last year and has been meeting since September. It is composed of senior academics and University and student union managers, many of whom specialise in corporate management and estates. No students or elected officers were appointed to the committee and the recommendations will be voted on this Friday without further consultation.

The group’s chairman, SOAS deputy Vice-Provost Paul Webley, set the tone for the review in an email to members in October stating “all options [are] on the table” with regards to ULU, adding “We are particularly interested in value for money”. Webley described the Review’s aims as “radical”.

ULU’s effectiveness in representing students comes under harsh criticism from the review, which claims that low turnout in elections is evidence that the union is out of touch, but makes no account of the upturn in voter numbers in last month’s elections. The review argues that the NUS would be better placed than ULU to carry out “campaigning, lobbying and representation for London students”. In a statement to the Review Group, however, the NUS has admitted that it is “not currently running London specific campaigns”.

Malet-ious Intent

Under the review’s recommendations, the Malet street building would be taken from ULU in July 2014 and turned into a “Student Services Centre” run by University managers. Recent University investments in the pool and gym mean these amenities are likely to stay, but it is uncertain whether ULU’s many clubs and societies will remain. With a turnover of approximately £4m in 2011/12, ULU’s bars, cafes, shops and conferencing facilities are a lucrative incentive for a UoL takeover. The future of the London Student newspaper is also in doubt.

The Review’s proposals come without guarantee of implementation, leaving open the possibility that, having dissolved ULU, the University would not maintain the Malet Street building as a student services centre.

UCL Provost Professor Malcolm Grant has been looking to acquire the building for a number of years. ULU’s Chief Executive, Julie Adams has already stated her opposition to such a course of action in a report on the future of the union. Adams described UCL’s intentions to acquire the ULU building as “common knowledge” and wrote that any sale would come at “the expense of the University’s estate and to the detriment of UL member Colleges.” UCLU Education and Campaigns Officer Edwin Clifford Coupe informs this magazine that Professor Grant was pursuing an acquisition of the Malet Street building as recently as last October.

Winners and ULU-sers

The University of London Collegiate Council is to meet this Friday to hear and decide on the Review’s proposals. In an email sent last week, ULU President Michael Chessum urged ULU Senators to meet with their Vice-Chancellors, who sit on the Council, and lobby them to vote against the plans. Chessum told this magazine: “I have sympathy for the idea of creating a London-wide campaigning union, but the recommendations of the ULU Review don’t go anywhere in creating that: they take space, services and representation away from democratic student control”. Clifford Coupe argues that the proposals “set a dangerous precedent for university managements to shut down student run space”. The ECO and other UCLU sabbatical officers plan to meet with Professor Grant this week.

Positive sentiments towards ULU are certainly not guaranteed from Vice Chancellors nor even ULU Senators – the Review was initiated in part because of complaints about ULU made by five outgoing London sabbatical officers last June, who wrote “In our view, the governance of ULU appears to be weak, strategic planning processes are poor, its finances are opaque and its election turnouts bring its democratic legitimacy into serious question”.

The Review concludes that “business as usual” is not an option for ULU, a sentiment shared in part by ULU Vice President Daniel Cooper, who wrote in his submission to the Review that ULU needed to be “rebuilt… on a new foundation, to make it the effective and credible union”. Whether ULU will be given a second chance is to be determined on Friday.

Bo Franklin and Oscar Webb