In recent months, the University of London's Senate House has been operating like a dodgy nightclub, with extra security guards, ID-checks, bag checks and ugly security fences. A techy, unpleasant vibe has taken hold.
In an email to staff, the university's Vice Chancellor's Executive Group acknowledged that "Colleagues [feel] that these issues are starting to have an impact on the staff and visitors, particularly those who are used to Senate House being an open and welcoming building and also those attending events and activities."
A lecturer at the University of London put it to me more bluntly: "People have found this very intimidating and the atmosphere is quite paranoid."
The imposing Art Deco structure of Senate House – the university’s administrative centre and a library – famously inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. For some students, the Orwellian parallels have become as obvious as a reference in a first-year essay: they say the beefed-up security – a result of a series of strikes and a student occupation in March, in solidarity with striking workers – has implications on free thought and political expression on campus.
Students being dragged out of Senate House on Monday night after holding a sit in.
Tommy Walters, who just graduated after studying History and Spanish, was recently escorted out of the library by security. When I asked him why, he could only assume it was because – while not an activist – he made a documentary about a recent student occupation for Savage, a UCL arts and culture journal.
"There was someone waiting for me as I left the library," he tells me. "He said he was going down on his break, walking down with me. And I was like, 'Okay, that's a bit weird.' [He was] walking right beside me, and I stop for about 30 seconds just to [check] – "I'm not going crazy here, he can't really be escorting me out without claiming that he is?" – and then he stops with me. I'm like, 'Are you escorting me out?' and he's like, 'No, no, no, of course I'm not.' I go down one more flight of stairs and I'm like, 'This is a bit dumb – it's so 1984; almost too 1984 to be true.' Then the manager comes up and says, 'Yeah, we're here to escort you out of the building.'"
Nationwide, between February and April, university lecturers were striking in a pensions dispute. Meanwhile, at UoL, the outsourced contract workers organised by the IWGB trade union – including cleaners, receptionists, porters, gardeners, post-room workers, audio-visual workers and security guards – have been striking to be brought in-house and afforded the rights that workers directly employed by the university are entitled to. The campaign has gained high profile support from the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell; Shadow Labour Secretary Laura Pidcock; Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley; and lefty-folk singer Billy Bragg.
With the university's own IWGB-organised guards now liable to go on strike, and students happy to occupy university property in solidarity, the university has had to draft in temporary security guards, an operation it admitted is incurring "significant costs". This is all in order to police the campus against protests demanding, among other things, that regular security staff be paid more.
Students complain that the newly-recruited security guards have been thuggish and incompetent.
In an email to management, students from the occupation complain of "numerous incidents which have involved members of staff putting students… in immediate danger, including where security staff, on the instruction of management, have acted with aggression towards students".
A video from another protest shows a security guard pushing UCL Women's Officer Justine Canady away from a building. Shocked, she immediately shouts, "Touched my tit, you touched my breast," and he replies, "It's alright, I'm a faggot anyway, so what are you going to do?" She says, "Oh my god… that's a sexual assault, you know that?" and he replies, "Okay."
"You touched my breast, you cannot do that, that's sexual assault," she says, and he replies, "You were actually in my personal space."
He later tells her, "I would rather put my dick in a grinder [than have sex with you]."
The university agreed to hold an independent investigation after the occupation in March. "The students were invited to provide input through various channels with the organisation undertaking this work. No response was received from the students," a UoL Spokesperson said.
Justice for UoL Workers said that the investigation was a "charade".
A statement from the group said: "University managers sent an email inviting submissions to this investigation to an inactive Rise Up email account [a secure service used by many activists] they themselves during the occupation had asked us to stop using for communications with them, as emails were going straight to spam, after which we had moved to a new gmail account."
The students had repeatedly asked to be kept up to date with the investigation, using their gmail account.
Zebulun Sansom, a first year Philosophy student, is another student made to leave the library for his involvement in the occupation. "After the occupation was over, I came to do revision in the library and went downstairs for a cigarette," he tells me. "By the time I came back to the door they had got a picture of all the people who had been sitting round in a great big semi-circle in the Senate room [during the occupation], which included my face. They said, 'This is most definitely you.' [To] which I said, 'Yes, that's definitely me,' several times. They seemed to be under the impression that I was denying it somehow, which I definitely wasn’t. They said, 'You’re not coming back in, and you’re not allowed to be in here for the foreseeable future.'
"Eventually they agreed to bring a security guard, who escorted me up and collected my stuff, and went down in the lift. I was shaken up, and I was a little bit irritated with myself for not having made a firmer stand."
Zeb tells me about how his family has been in the Labour Party since "at least the mid-20s, though we suspect 1918 is when my great-grandmother joined". His father – now deceased – was arrested at the Coalville pit during the miners' strike in 1984, when he showed up from Oxford University to show solidarity. "I'm sure my father was absolutely gleefully, joyfully looking down on me as I got involved in the scuffles and so on," he says.
Zeb got involved in the occupation because of his Christian-socialism. "The gospels are very clear in their absolute prioritisation of the poor and the marginalised," he says. "To save your soul you have to stand on the side of justice, on the side of improving things, because the world is so dramatically unequal, you can't just stand by and say, 'This is nothing to do with me.'"
Matters of the soul seem relevant here. For those having to enter work at the say-so of unknown security guards, the situation seems to say something about the very essence of the university as a public institution – the collegiate ideal making way for a financialised learning experience, with anyone who doesn't like it becoming "a kind of enemy within", lamented one lecturer, declining to be named for fear of repercussions.
"It's a university campus, not the Cabinet War Rooms," said the lecturer. "Senate House has always been an open, almost public building. There are a number of libraries here, and many, many public events. To me, it's emblematic of how university life is changing: the UoL is prioritising protecting its money-making assets over its libraries and research institutes."
Such protection has little to do with anybody’s security in a real sense, the lecturer suggested. "Anyone can get in the building with ID: I have made a point for three weeks of not showing my UoL ID, but showing anything else with a picture of me on it. This has never been questioned because the new guards don't have a clue what a correct ID would look like. I think it's what [privacy specialist] Bruce Schneier calls 'security theatre' – the appearance of doing something without any practical effect."
"Except," he adds, "that the atmosphere and internal relationships are now very strained and fractious."
Last night, students were roughly evicted from the Senate House reception area. They had been holding a sit-in in solidarity with the outsourced workers, in advance of a meeting of the board of trustees to decide on the outsourcing contracts at the university on the 23rd of May.
A video shows a student screaming "What the fuck!" "Stop it!" and "Let me go!" as she is dragged out of the reception area.
A second student is then ejected, dragged out by her legs.
Shortly after the eviction Justine Canady told me over WhatsApp, "I think quite a lot of us are feeling a bit shaken and upset. A few people started crying. We are used to them being forceful and at times violent, but this was particularly forceful."
A UoL spokesperson told VICE: "We are deeply concerned about allegations of physical and sexual assault on students who were protesting at the University of London. The University of London and its provider of security services, Cordant Services, take all such allegations or other inappropriate behaviour very seriously and will work with the relevant organisations to conduct an investigation.
"There are significant costs to providing additional security both in infrastructure and personnel expenditure. It is unfortunate to expend funds in this manner, but the circumstances dictate that the University needs to ensure business continuity and to provide a safe environment for staff, students and visitors. It was also important to ensure that the review of contracted out services was undertaken on an evidence base and not subject to external pressures."
When pressed on the specific issue of students being escorted out of the library, a UoL spokesperson said: "Some individuals have been asked to leave Senate House Library. This would be in the grounds of health and safety where they had previously been known to have endangered either themselves or others by being in breach of health and safety regulations in the building.
"With regard to the 'documentary', we don’t permit unauthorised filming on library premises for a variety of reasons, including failure to obtain consent from other students who might appear on camera. Any requests for filming need to be made in writing in advance."
Cordant did not respond to comment.