Meet the Radical Student Whistleblowers Taking On the University of London

These guys broke into their vice chancellor's office and passed stolen documents on to the press.

09 April 2014, 11:00am

A sweary note left to University of London Vice Chancellor Adrian Smith by the students who entered his office

Exhilarating though the procedural motions being discussed at the NUS annual conference – which started yesterday and ends tomorrow – may be, there are some other documents circulating around the world of acedemia that could prove more significant in the short term.

VICE has seen a draft of a letter calling for a demonstration on International Workers’ Day, the 1st of May, at the University of London (UoL). The march calls for full sick pay, holiday pay and pensions for outsourced workers, a reversal of the plan to shut down the University of London Union and demands that police and the UK Border Agency shouldn’t be allowed on campuses without the permission of elected student representatives. So, basically, all the stuff students spent last year shouting about while they were being punched by police and ramming wheelie-bins into university property.

A number of elected student representatives from around the country are readying their biros to sign the motion, which comes shortly after a tumblr called Mayday Carnival posted a call-out for a demonstration along the same lines. At this stage, it’s hard to say if a few people will turn up and get distracted by the sound system that the call-out promised, or if students from across the country will turn up and ignite another round of radicalism.

Some of the Vice Chancellor's documents stolen by students.

The last time students protested in London, on the 28th of February, it didn't seem like there was a lot of momentum left. Only about 100 people turned up to the protest against University of London (UoL) Vice Chancellor Adrian Smith, who earns £153,000 per year, while some of his outsourced workers end up with about £9,000 after tax. But those who were there managed to pull off what, in hindsight, turned out to be a pretty successful piece of protest action.

Climbing through windows and edging along a balcony to get into Smith’s office, the student activists borrowed several folders full of the vice chancellor's confidential documents. Occupy Senate House, the group behind the action, passed copies on to the Guardian, which then published a report about two of the documents’ contents.

The information within showed UoL management admitting that its policy of outsourcing workers has managed to pull off the neat trick of making services both worse and more expensive. The documents also revealed that that the trade union Unison had apparently colluded with the university in trying to hamper the outsourced cleaners' “3Cosas” campaign, which called for sick pay, holiday pay and pensions. If you need an idea of how absurd that is, imagine Nigel Farage selling his house to an extended family of Bulgarian immigrants and you'll be in the right kind of region. 

Prior to the Guardian’s story, the London Student had revealed that UoL IT staff were unhappy at management’s plans to partner their jobs up with a business, basically making them a commercial operation. Which isn't all that shocking, of course – but it was interesting that it was admitted in an internal UoL document, which also stated that many of the staff didn’t feel comfortable talking to management due to a “lack of trust”.

Protesters force their way past security into a university building

Before Christmas, UoL accused student protesters of being “violent and intimidating”. But the revelations paint a picture of a university pushing changes that nobody seems to want, and engaging in underhand tactics to get its way. UoL have stated that nothing “of massive confidentiality” was taken and called protesters a “mild irritant”. We spoke to a couple of the mild irritators involved in the document robbery to get their take on the significance of the revelations. Obviously they didn’t want us to mention their real names, so the ones you see below are pseudonyms.

VICE: Right – first things first; these documents were nicked. How do you justify that?
Sam: It’s a confusing time. What people did by taking the documents – by this heist – has led to some good. No, I don’t think it's entirely democratic, but when management start acting democratically, we will be able to.
Alex: Students are the university – we're entitled to see these documents. They belong to us and should be available for everybody to see. If the management were entirely above board, it wouldn’t matter to them anyway. And if all documents were available to everybody they would have to be better behaved.

What do you make of how the university has behaved?
Sam: The actions of administrative staff are totally illegitimate. People are being made to pay to study for jobs they might not get, and this is all being overseen by people who have little to no experience of the educational process. They’re screwing lecturers, as demonstrated by UCU [lecturers' union] strikes, and support staff, as demonstrated by the 3Cosas and J4C [SOAS cleaners] strikes. And they’re screwing students by taking on lucrative courses and more lucrative international students.

Students sneak into the vice chancellor's office

Do you feel like there’s a lack of resistance to this? Even at the end of 2013 there were way fewer protesters than in 2010.
It’s almost farcical how some people don’t want to look beyond the personal and look a tiny bit above to what’s happening in their departments and in their college as a whole. On the picket line at a recent cleaners’ strike, I had a guy saying he was breaking the strike because he was trying to get out of “the hood”. But all those cleaners striking for fair pay were trying to get out of the hood as well – it was silly, but that’s what happens when people think of themselves as individual customers trying to get value for money.

How does the idea of students as customers play out?
Alex: It’s self-perpetuating. Making the university a business, effectively by force – with protesters being beaten down and fees being put up in 2010 – is forcing out people who disagree and changing the culture. Lots of students think of themselves as customers now, and although they make demands of the university, which they see as selling them a service, they do this in a different way. They don’t see themselves as part of the institution in the same way.
Sam: Sure, people go to classes, they do their essays, they get their degrees. But it’s more about training, about getting ready for the next thing. It’s just become functionary. Blame who you want – the Tories for hiking fees, New Labour for making university a middle-class rite of passage.

A student exiting through the window of the vice chancellor's office

Are the university taking any of the student discontent into account?
Alex: Rather than changing the things people are unhappy about, they're trying to think of ways to change the culture of students and lecturers [of seeing universities as more than businesses], which they deem as backward. They’re trying to suppress the discontent and bend the culture to suit their aims, rather than listening to our opinions.

What do you think the revelations mean, in terms of the protests that have been happening?
The documents prove that the trends we have been protesting against – of unaccountable management acting with their own agenda for profit at the expense of students, lecturers and support staff – are real.

Did the behaviour of Unison – a trade union trying to ruin a workers' rights campaign – surprise you?
Unison might be undermining this because it undermines their monolithic status. If things are brought down to a smaller level it makes them harder to negotiate: it’s better for the workers and worse for the companies. I don’t understand the intricacies of union politics, but this is how I see it – Unison were not prepared to fight for the little guy.

Does the way things are going mean there will be further protests?
The university don’t talk to people; the only way to get them to talk is to piss them off, to be a gadfly. The extent to which they don't talk to us is insane. It’s all governed by this corporate communications strategy. They’re fucking people, we’re fucking people – why can’t we sit down to talk? But if they’re not going to do that, and instead just get the pigs out on the street, what choice do we have? I don’t like doing it this way, I don’t like putting myself and my friends in danger and being called ridiculous and deluded. I never thought I’d have to do this to get the attention of the management of my university.

Thanks, guys. Stay out of trouble.

Follow (@SimonChilds13) and Charlotte (@charlottengland) on Twitter.