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London's Student Activists Failed to Save the ULU

They were thwarted by a lone security guard named Brian.
August 6, 2014, 10:00am

Activists from the Save ULU campaign try in vain to occupy the building on Thursday night

Last week, after a sustained student-led effort to retain control of the building, the University of London Union (ULU) was shut down by university management. In the end, the students left with a whimper, attempting to occupy the building on Thursday night but ultimately being thwarted by a lone security guard named Brian. The people who turned up on Thursday were dwarfed in number by the throng that attended a farewell party organised by sabbatical officers the night before. It was a sad end to what had been a relatively determined "Save ULU" campaign; the occupation attempt little more than a poorly coordinated disaster.

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But there are mitigating circumstances. All of the sabbatical officers who've been involved in running this year's "Save ULU" campaign are – by default – ULU trustees. As such, they were told that they were contractually obliged to ensure the smooth transfer of the building to its new university management, and that if any problems should arise, they would be personally liable. Obviously that didn't help with organising things.

On the Friday morning after the botched occupation, university staff tweeted smugly that it was "business as usual". So pleased were the new managers to claim the building, that they got ahead of themselves and quickly had to issue a correction: lots of the facilities aren’t actually open until September, but that’s beside the point when what they really meant was that ULU had been successfully wrenched away from the last students still trying to save it.

Only a paltry 25 people tried to occupy the building in the end. Hardly anyone knew about it, apparently. The vast majority of people I spoke to at the party the night before had no idea an occupation was even going to take place. Nor did any of the people who were involved in the campaign earlier in the year, but haven’t been around since the end of term. Even on the final evening, most people who attended a mass meeting didn’t know that the action would go ahead. This was probably because the sabbaticals of ULU could not be involved because of their liability as trustees, thus nothing really got organised in advance.

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Save ULU activists come up against their immovable object – Brian, the security guard

In the end, poor organisation made it possible for the action to be undermined by a single security guard, Brian, who was left in the building overnight by the security manager. It was impossible to remove Brian, or to properly secure the building with him inside. When Senate House was occupied last year, security guards also refused to leave. They claimed to be hostages and then demanded to be let out when the police arrived, making it necessary to take a barricade down, which let the police in.

To further complicate the situation, the security guard was left on his own with instructions to stay for ten hours, through the night, without any breaks. This made the occupiers extremely uncomfortable; trying to persuade the security guard to join a union and question the working conditions being imposed upon him, as well as to go home, became a big distraction.

Increasingly demoralised, running out of ideas and not working well together, several occupiers broke away from the group and ran amok in the building. Some refused to participate in consensus decision making and one guy got so high he became extremely attached to a whiteboard, on which he wrote his own personal demands, and threatened to "scale the walls naked" rather than be made to leave. Eventually, everybody gave up and just went home.

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In many ways, the failed action was like a microcosm of the Save ULU campaign, which peaked in the winter with dozens of people attempting to Occupy Senate house and being violently removed, triggering a Cops Off Campus demonstration that attracted thousands of people from across the country, before petering out in the face of police intimidation, management strategising and, most insurmountably, overwhelming apathy within the student body.

Which isn't to say there isn't a minority that do remain political. ULU has been a key meeting point for demos that have attracted hundreds willing to challenge the marketisation of higher education in general. It’s a place where people have stayed until late at night painting book blocks and banners, and it's held crisis meetings after protests have been violently broken up by the police. When I was arrested covering a protest last year, it was from ULU that groups of people were dispatched to support me and other student arrestees outside police stations across south London in the middle of the night. Having my friends waiting outside while I was in a cell immensely improved the situation.

It’s from ULU that the Women’s Officer has worked on campaigns to challenge sexual harassment on campus and in the workplace. And it’s from ULU that the London Student newspaper has produced 10,000 copies every few weeks exposing London Universities’ investment in the arms trade, as well as the management’s excessive spending on spa hotels and parties. Something that makes you wonder why they'd like to close it down.

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Unlike the gym and the bar – which students will continue to be able to pay to use at the newly and temporarily rebranded "student central" – the campaigns and journalism launched from ULU have been about more than consumption and personal gain. The loss of ULU will take students further away from being participants in education, towards being mere consumers of it. This is bad news for anyone who believes that education is about producing rounded and intelligent individuals, rather than maximising the potential of functioning human cogs in a service economy.

Worst of all, without ULU, it will be far harder to campaign against this creeping privatisation of our universities.

@CharlottEngland / @owebb

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