In May of this year, the University of London announced that it was going to shut down its student union.
The University of London Union (ULU) is one of the largest in Europe, with over 120,000 members from UCL, King's, LSE, SOAS, Queen Mary, Goldsmiths and a number of other colleges. The university’s management intends to turn the building into what it calls a "student services centre" and to scrap the elected student officers and, possibly, the clubs and societies who use the facilities. The head of the group planning ULU's closure, Professor Paul Webley of SOAS, wrote in a telling leaked email to the other members that, "We are particularly interested in value for money."
Around 200 students took to the streets around ULU in Bloomsbury, central London yesterday to protest the university's plan. But before the protest started, I asked a few people why they were there and why they thought ULU shouldn't be shut. Unsurprisingly, most of the young people taking time out of their days to protest in the street said that it was a good space for organising left-wing student campaigns.
VICE: Hi Hannah. So, I hear management are closing this place down. What's going on?
Hannah: Managers from across the University of London voted to close down the student union. This isn't at all OK. They don't hold any legitimate power. It's not OK for managers to decide to shut down a student union.
Did the management ask students what they wanted?
Nope – no students were consulted in their decision. Next week there's going to be a referendum run by the union on whether ULU should be saved. I'm pretty sure students will decide they want it.
What do you use ULU for?
This building is a really important place for organising with students from across London.
Housing campaigns. Throughout the summer we've been working on travel discounts for part time and postgraduate students. Doing that is impossible to do from one individual students' union; it has to come from a pan-London body, like ULU.
Before long, the protest set off towards Senate House, the administrative centre of the University of London. Unfortunately, university security and the 50 police officers who'd been invited onto campus were ready and waiting, and had locked the gates, blocking access to the building.
Cunningly, the protest marched around to the other side of the building. However, the police had somehow outwitted the demonstrators again and were stationed by that entrance, too.
By this point, the protesters had become visibly bored of standing around, so some decided to jump the railings. Others – the ones with less experience of scaling fences – found a convenient side entrance and strolled through there.
Egged on by this minor victory, the rest of the protesters tried to storm the gates. Almost as soon as they'd started, around 20 cops suddenly emerged from vans and pushed everyone back, while those who made it inside were forcibly dragged out by the police and college security. The gates were shut and the police formed a line to dissuade anyone else from getting close.
Watching cops drag teenagers away from the entrance by their necks, it struck me as kind of odd that so much time and effort was being expended on keeping students out of a university.
Or maybe everyone just wanted to have a turn on this guy's neck.
Senate House was Orwell's inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in 1984, so I suppose it made sense for staff to honour that by filming protesters from one of the building's balconies. The university hasn't said what it plans to do with the footage, but I'm guessing it won't make it into next year's prospectus video.
After ejecting all the students from the premises, police and security rounded everything off with a little more neck-grabbing and some general pushing and shoving, before everything sort of petered out.
For a moment while students were scaling the walls, it almost looked like a mini repeat of Millbank in 2010. But I suppose it doesn't make much sense to smash up the university you're trying to save, so it's probably not a bad thing everyone backed off and just stood around waving their placards.
The police said no one was arrested, but one officer told me "people could have been arrested" for "breach of the peace – for trying to get in". Back in July, the University of London effectively banned protest by announcing that any students protesting on university property would be prosecuted for trespassing. They have also made it clear that they won't tolerate any kind of political dissent, pressing charges against one of its own students who was arrested in July for drawing political slogans in chalk on a university wall.
The president of ULU, Michael Chessum, has said that there will be further action against the closure of the union in the coming months. But looking at the wildly over-the-top response from the university to any kind of opposition, they have their work cut out for them.
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