Open Season on The Student Centre: The Lack of Security & Support at UCL

Samir Ismail, Investigations Editor

The Student Centre is a study spot frequented by most UCL students. It is common knowledge that it is always a challenge to find a space unless you arrive early enough.  As such, when a student successfully finds a coveted spot in the Student Centre, they do all they can to ensure they don’t lose it to someone else on the prowl. We’ve all done it- left our bags and laptops at our seats while we pop to the loo or even make a lunch trip to Fold. It is almost natural to leave your belongings as a placeholder

If you’re a little less trusting than the average student, the possibility of someone stealing your stuff might cross your mind. However, this is probably easily rationalised- surely someone would notice and say something? Surely the Student Centre’s security is airtight? With a timestamped log of every student that swipes in and out, cameras dotted around, and security in high-vis jackets walking around, surely you reconcile the fear of your items being stolen. 

However, after receiving a report from a student whose laptop was stolen and launching a consequent investigation into the security resources UCL deploys, we learned how shockingly insecure the Student Centre really is. One dedicated student journalist went to the Student Centre to figure out how many cameras there actually are. Only two sit surveilling the entirety of the Mezzanine and the first floor but their fields of view have some very troubling blindspots. 

Beyond the lack of safety for both students and their possessions, it also risks the thousands of pounds of UCL’s computer equipment housed on the first floor alone. The second floor has the same amount of cameras, which cover even less area, only really surveilling the laptop loan lockers. The Cafe only has one camera, its field of view being considerably blocked by the large pillars. Finally the basement and the top floor social study space have none at all, leaving even more laptops and university tech equipment completely unguarded. How these are insured, if they are at all insured is a mystery to us all. 

The Cheese Grater spoke to a student who had recently lost their laptop in the Student Centre. He explained the worrying process they had to go through just to report their lost, possibly stolen item. The student clarified that he did not necessarily believe it had been taken in the Student Centre as he had been travelling that day, but merely wanted to check if it had been left there and as a result taken by someone else.

‘The security guards were so disinterested in helping,’ the student recalled. The student was shocked by this as it was 11:30 pm on a Friday night, so it was understandably not very busy at all. Security informed him that he would only be able to look at the CCTV footage once a formal police report had been filed. After spending close to an hour on hold with the police, the guards went on to inform the student of two more forms that needed to be filled before they could access the footage. Another 15 minutes of filling in repetitive forms later, he was informed that only one person in the entire security team had the clearance to actually look at the security cameras, and that staff member would only be at work next on Monday. 

At this point, the student had spent the better part of his Friday night trying to navigate the red tape around getting access to the very limited CCTV footage, only to be told that it was all for nothing and he’d have to wait until Monday anyways. It is highly concerning that a student is unable to access any information on the weekends, especially in the middle of exam season. The student returned on Saturday to check for updates, and this time the Student Centre staff directed him to Lost and Found. It was only after arriving at UCL’s Lost and Found centre that he discovered they too, were only open Monday to Friday. So, even if his laptop had been turned in, he wouldn’t be able to retrieve it until Monday. 

The dedicated student returned to campus looking for answers on Sunday. He spoke to the librarian sitting by the barriers, ‘they knew my face by now’. During their conversation about the diminishing number of cameras on the top floors, the librarian said, ‘ah yeah, it’s like that in the Student Centre. The higher up you go, the less cameras there are’. When the student made a joke about the top floor being the best for committing a crime with security, an uneasy silence fell over the conversation, seemingly bringing awareness to how unprotected the Student Centre really is. Later that evening, the student received an email detailing that they could see him enter and exit the building, because that’s all the cameras captured along with a couple of staircases, and they had ‘exhausted all avenues’. 

When the student further jokingly suggested that a security guard had taken it, they took great offence and retorted, ‘We’ve had a twenty thousand pound watch returned to the desk and we didn’t even take that’. What that was supposed to mean remains unclear, but what is worth noting is that they prioritised protecting their moral standing from an informal jibe over actually helping the student work through the process of locating his belongings. 

One phrase that the student explained came up in conversation multiple times from almost every staff member was, ‘UCL doesn’t want Big Brother looking over you’, as if to explain and justify the lax security present in the Student Centre. While I’m sure students appreciate not wanting to be stalked by a rogue security guard on the CCTV, it is a risk I’d be willing to take to trust that my belongings are protected. Ultimately, this is part of a larger problem, and it seems the idea of UCL not wanting to be invasive is an excuse for incompetence and a lack of security rather than a genuine attempt to protect student well being.

The Cheese Grater’s Nandini Agarwal also contributed to this article.

This article appeared in CG Issue 83.