The Fight For The Heart of UCL

A battle is raging at UCL, one that will define the very nature of the university for decades to come.

It all came to a head this week at a town hall-style meeting in the Cruciform chaired by former cabinet minister and former Chair of UCL’s governing body, Lord Young (who was, inexplicably, wearing a tuxedo). The room was packed with academics from all departments voicing their grievances.

The question at the heart of the meeting: are senior management in over their heads?

The resulting discussion was frank and emotional. Academics made impassioned pleas about mental health, the lack of space on campus, and the transparency of senior management.

And, in a bizarre turn of events, Rex Knight, UCL’s infamous Vice Provost, was even heckled into revealing the value of his bonus (more on this later).

How Did We Get Here?

Understanding the story of how we got here, goes a long way to explaining all the issues students face at UCL, namely the lack of mental health provisions and the shortage of study and teaching space.

In the last ten years, UCL’s student population has doubled to over 40,000. It now holds the dubious title of the largest university in the country.

In fact, UCL’s ballooning population will only continue to grow. Last year, Provost Michael Arthur told academics that there will be 46,000 students by 2025.

Arthur argued UCL’s expansion is the only way to continue paying for world-leading research and funding the refurbishment of a dilapidated campus.

Save UCL (Again!), SUA, a cavalcade of academics unhappy with UCL’s current management and the organisers of this week’s meeting, fundamentally dispute this.

SUA accuse Arthur and Dame Deanne Julius, the Chair of UCL Council (UCL’s governing body), of signing off on massive loans without due diligence, and pushing a corporate agenda of expansion that they believe has resulted in overworked staff, under-supported students and put the future of the university at risk.

No Confidence Vote

Professor Tony Segal, Division of Medicine, began the town hall with slides illustrating UCL’s ever-increasing student population and spiralling expansion costs and asked whether this was sustainable, especially in light of the risks posed by a potential Labour government abolishing tuition fees, or the effects of Brexit on research grant income.

Professor John McArthur, UCL Earth Sciences, added, at UCL “money is now the king”. He said, management do not care about the quality of his research, only the income it can generate. He ended by saying, there is now a “them and an us”.

Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia, UCL Institute for Human Rights, complained that members of senior management received bonuses, at the same time as teaching budgets were being slashed.

He questioned how UCL could be transparent in its finances, when the very people who decide bonuses and senior management pay are themselves the senior managers.

Professor Emma Morris, Faculty of Medical Sciences, thanked a student who spoke at the meeting and claimed that to the university “students were just their debt.” Morris then added that academics “are here to inspire and encourage” and that if the students really feel that way, it should be a “wake up call”.

Mental health also became a focal point of the discussion. Professor Maria Fitzgerald, Division of Biosciences, highlighted how little consideration had been made of students, asking “who made the decision to cut mental health?”

At the end of the meeting 94 percent voted that they did not have confidence in the current governance of UCL.

Rex Puts His Foot In It

Rex Knight, the only member of senior management present at the meeting agreed to respond to the accusations levelled.

Knight argued that “growth was not just about student numbers”, and then began detailing UCL’s burgeoning research income.

His response was met with heads in hands by the academics.

Knight was then heckled about whether senior management did in fact receive bonuses. In an ill-advised attempt to placate the baying crowd, Knight admitted that he received a £3,000 bonus last year to jeers from many.

The chasm between academics and administrators is ever-widening, with students continuing to lose out.

With pension strikes in a fortnight’s time, the ‘them and us’ mentality will only grow more entrenched. The battle for UCL has just begun.

Jason Murugesu and Peter FitzSimons

This article was published in CG Issue 60.