Is University Still Worth It?

VICE's Most Evil British University Awards 2016

Sexual assault, celebrating racist historical figures and threatening students: we congratulate the British unis going that extra mile.

by Hannah Ewens
01 September 2016, 10:40am

It's been drilled into us by successive Labour and Tory governments: universities are businesses, they have to make money, pay the bills and wildly overpay their senior management just like any other company. They might be bastions of progressive thought and freedom of speech, but they're still just microcosms of patriarchal hegemony built on traditionalism, colonialism and neglect of the working classes (or whatever it is you learn to say at university).

Universities have come under a lot of scrutiny in this post-woke world. Hardly a week goes by without another scandal involving a professor sexually assaulting a student or a deal made with a dodgy company to fund nuclear arms research. But when people are forking out over £9,000 a year on tuition, it's not surprising they expect their university to spend that cash ethically.

So without further ado, here is the VICE Most Evil British University Awards 2016.

De Montford University (Photo via Wiki)

DE MONTFORT

De Montfort University in Leicester decided to give David Cameron an award for the introduction of equal marriage. The move was rightly opposed by by De Monfort's LGBT society and its SU president, Adil Waraich, who argued that Cameron's other policies hurt young LGBT people far more than equal marriage could help them. "If we're talking equality for LGBT people, this is a man who voted against repealing Section 28 as recently as 2003," Adil said. The uni's Vice Chancellor then released a statement calling critics "disingenuous" and Adil was suspended while an investigation took place, preventing him from doing his job.

EVIL RATING: 2/5

Staffordshire University (Photo via Wiki)

STAFFORDSHIRE

At Staffordshire Uni, a post-grad student, Mohammed Umar Farooq, was questioned about his views on Islam and homosexuals after reading a suspicious book entitled "Terrorism Studies" for his counter-terrorism course, which he's on, as a counter-terrorism student. He was so unsettled he had to leave his course. A victory.

EVIL RATING: 4/5

Sussex University (Photo via Wiki)

SUSSEX

Meanwhile down south at Sussex Uni, a tutor, Dr Lee Salter, was convicted of the assault of his 24-year-old former student girlfriend. Understanding of this inconvenience to his career, Salter was allowed to continue in his senior post even after being charged and complaints were made. What's a little punching, stamping on and pouring salt in a young woman's eyes got to do with teaching ability, we'd like to know.

EVIL RATING: BEYOND APPALLING/5

Peterhouse Old Court at Cambridge University (Photo via Wiki)

CAMBRIDGE

Cambridge has disgraced itself on three counts: the environment, social mobility, and having anything to do with David Starkey.

Universities like Newcastle, Surrey and UAL have, in recent years, agreed to divest from fossil fuels, recognising sustained campaign work by activists who say academia should be leading the way on sustainable energy. Cambridge, though, have rejected ruling out future investments in coal and tar sands. Even after 2000 students complained, 100 academics signed a petition and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams stepped in, Cambridge refused to consider committing their endowment (the second biggest in the UK) to ethical promises.

In December, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission condemned both Oxford and Cambridge for their failure to increase the admissions of state school pupils. To meet their own benchmark, Cambridge was told it would need 18 percent more kids from comps. Robinson College somehow still manages to admit less than half of its intake from state schools.

How has Cambridge responded? By putting up even more barriers to admission, of course. In February they announced they would be introducing written tests for all candidates by Autumn 2017, and again the commission panned them. Alan Milburn, former Labour minister, warned that private tutors and public schools would be able to train rich kids to ace the exams.

Cambridge has also been accused of wilfully ignoring black students' concerns. In November, it was was forced to take down a marketing video featuring alumnus David Starkey, who notoriously said that "the whites have become black," when asked what had caused the 2011 London riots. Starkey is the sort of historian whose views should also have been consigned to the history books - he firmly repeated claims that violence and gun crime is something inherent to "gangster culture" in the pages of the Telegraph.

Instead of apologising, Cambridge said that their intention had been to replace the video with a new one anyway. Educated adults do 'sorry, not sorry', too.

EVIL RATING: 3/5

SOAS campus (Photo by Flickr user Poeloq)

SOAS

The School of Oriental and African Studies is the hippest hang out in the whole of ULU. With their multiculturalist interests and activism, those guys are right on! Not exactly.

Byron burgers caused a storm recently by luring employees into a trap set by immigration enforcement officers, but lesser known is that SOAS did the exact same thing in June 2009. The school's cleaners were called into an "emergency meeting" only to be jumped by UK Border Agency officers. Eight of them were deported, and one, Luiza, was six months pregnant. The lecture hall they were entrapped has been unofficially named after her baby, Lucas, by the student union.

A campaign to support the cleaners, Justice for Cleaners, had been asking the university to bring cleaners in-house (rather than go through an outsourced company) since 2006. One of the outsourced cleaners, Consuelo Moreno, was given a chance to address the trustee board, giving an emotional speech on what outsourcing and job insecurity meant for her. An independent review commissioned by the university registrar proved that not only was outsourcing bad for the cleaners, it was also more costly and more risky for the university anyway. Despite all this pressure, university management refused to budge, and in April imposed a new five-year contract with industrial group Bouygues, who quickly rescinded many of the promises SOAS had made to the cleaners.

That's not all. At the start of last academic year after the introduction of a new director, former Blair advisor Valerie Amos, SOAS announced it would be cutting 184 courses – 20 percent of academic output. Students there responded in the way they know how, with an occupation of one of the university's most important buildings and a huge banner over the main campus reading "DESTROYED IRAQ, DESTROYING SOAS; Yours sincerely, V. Amos."

This particularly pissed off management, who took the extraordinary step of suspending the UNISON branch secretary, Sandy Nicoll, who was also heavily involved in Justice for Cleaners. Stay liberal, SOAS.

EVIL RATING: 3/5

Oriel College building at Oxford University (Photo via Wiki)

OXFORD

News from Oxford this year has been dominated by #RhodesMustFall, a movement originating in South Africa that in the UK centred on the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue outside Oriel College, Oxford. Old Cecil was a bloke who served as PM of the Cape Colony and a raging racist who thought of the English as a "master race". Suffice it to say, the presence of a colonial white supremacist wasn't welcome on campus. After alumni threatened to pull millions, Oriel's governing body panicked and released a statement to say the statue would be remaining in place. Oxford's chancellor, Lord Patten, told students that they should embrace freedom of thought or "think about being educated elsewhere".

Oh, and according to a massive Daily Mail investigation, Oxford has the most employees earning over £100,000 of any university in the country – 622. At least you know your wealthy white parents' money is paying for quality teaching.

EVIL RATING: 2/5

The UCL main building (Photo via Wiki)

UCL

Where to start, UCL? You've been in the headlines so often thanks to students striking about rent, we're almost bored of hearing about you.

Needless to say that you'd expect the best accommodation money can buy for an average of £180 a week. But especially for students at the infamous Max Rayne House, cockroaches, structural instability, plumbing problems and leaks were the norm. Through 2014/15, construction at rat-infested Campbell House West led many students to complaint they they were unable to live and work in halls they'd paid for, and had not been warned about the works in advance. After many went on rent strike, all 87 former residents received a rebate of nearly £100,000 - £1,368 per student. Then UCL bunkered down as the discontent bubbled on, refusing to make future concessions or negotiate with strikers.

Early in the summer it sent out letters warning striking students they could face academic sanctions including, but not limited to, a block on their re-enrolment and threats to graduation. They really managed to irritate the government with this, who forced them to give assurances that these threats would never be repeated. The university claimed that the letters had been sent "in error".

Student journalist Rebecca Pinnington found a report on a university shared calendar explaining how UCL had profiting from housing and was projecting increased profits from halls next academic year. After she published the findings she was called into Vice-Provost Rex Knight's office, where she was told she could face "various sanctions" including "dismissal without notice and potential exposure to court proceedings" if she published anything more.

An initial offer was made to shave off a week's rent from the academic year by reducing the amount of time students were meant to stay in halls. It didn't help much as the campaign argued it wasn't a concession at all: the university rents out student halls in the summer anyway so could actually end up making more money.

The university made another threat, in a letter stating that striking international students would not be allowed on the crucial university guarantor scheme, a move that would see most of them locked out of the property market entirely. In June, the university had to concede and reduced rents by around 2.5%, costing them about £850,000.

Then there was the whole incident with the Zero Tolerance exhibition.

The exhibition included survivors of sexual harassment and assault recorded their experiences and displayed them in the quad's North Lodge. One post referenced the alleged sexual abuse of a former UCL student by a member of staff. College authorities are said to have ordered its removal as they claimed it identified those involved.

Writing on UCLU's website, Women's Officer Annie Tidbury refused to remove the post and instead offered to "redact certain words so that the staff member could not be identified". She said, "every student has the right for their experiences to be heard. The attempt to cover up this allegation suggests that UCL prioritises institutional reputation over student welfare."

UCL also wanted to scrap its Women's Officer position all together, leaving female-identifying students with no representation and direct support.

EVIL RATING: 5/5

The Pimlott Building at Goldsmiths (Photo via Wiki)

GOLDSMITHS

What? London's progressive New Cross establishment has really done enough to warrant a place on this list? Well, yes, actually.

Goldsmiths students have been as unhappy with their high rent costs and poor quality accommodation as those at UCL. A room in Goldsmiths' student halls costs around £147 a week or nearly 75 percent of the average student maintenance loan for London. As well as campaigning against proposed increases in rent and "stealthy" privatisation of student halls, students have drawn attention to poor living conditions. Despite the success of UCL strikers, Goldsmiths have so far refused to follow suit and provide their students with reasonably priced halls, particularly disappointing considering UCL has now set the precedent.

Meanwhile, in May of this year, Sara Ahmed, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research and co-convenor of the MA in Gender Media and Culture, an extremely well-respected feminist academic, resigned in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment at the university. "Listening to students' experience of harassment did change my idea of the place I worked: how could it not?" she wrote on her blog in June this year. Ahmed claims that she heard of six enquiries into sexual harassment, four of which involved teachers. "These enquiries have not led to a robust and meaningful investigation of the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. Even when we had policy reviews, and policy changes, the review process was not opened up for a general discussion," she said. "When there is no official word by an organisation, it is not just that no one knows what happened; no one has to know."

Goldsmiths released a statement in response saying they take sexual harassment "very seriously" and pointed to a Sexual Harassment in Higher Education conference they hosted in December 2015. However the conference they credit here was not the work of Goldsmiths. It was organised by three former students, Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley. They published an important and powerful response to the college's statement. "We object to Goldsmiths using our labour as evidence that it is taking action on this issue," they said. "It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution."

It was August by the time Goldsmiths released another statement, which admitted there had been "inappropriate behaviour" at the university in the past.

When we spoke to Goldsmiths press office to ask whether the university was investigating the issue of sexual harassment further, they said they couldn't say either way. They instead directed us to the latest statement.

EVIL RATING: 5/5

UCL, Goldsmiths, you are so very evil that we couldn't agree on a definitive top place. Since your egregious behaviour is so closely matched by Oxbridge, really it's easier to say you're all deeply flawed, dishonourable winners in your own way. Since we can't split a trophy two ways, know that the prize may not be with you in person, Goldsmiths and UCL, but you wear your iniquitous nature on your sleeve for all future students to see.

@hannahrosewens / additional research James Andrew Smith

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