London students need a union!

Submitted by Matthew on 9 October, 2013 - 11:14

University of London (UoL) bosses want to shut down the University of London Union (ULU), the cross-London student union.

There are essentially two factors here: one to do with the ideological agenda of university managers and the weakness of the student bureaucracies, the other to do with the fate of the University itself.

ULU has played a pivotal role in the student movement since 2010, often calling and hosting major demonstrations alongside the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. It is also part of one of the most vibrant workers’ struggles in the country, the 3 Cosas campaign by UoL ancillary workers.

ULU is the only cross-London body that fights on issues like housing, international students, discrimination, and students who work. We are very often the only student union to organise around things like the closure of fire stations and NHS cuts.

So the first reason is relatively simple: we are pesky and anti-management, and if UoL can get away with shutting us, they will.

Meanwhile, the University of London is abolishing itself, bit by bit. The University’s decision-makers are its Colleges. Many of these Colleges — in particular the larger ones — now want to go their separate ways. Imperial College left in 2007.

UoL used to receive all of the Colleges’ government grants. It used to teach students directly, and it used to award all the degrees. Now UoL is really a shell, teaching only a few hundred students and mostly focussing on its highly lucrative International Programmes global brand.

Although students still value it, many managers see it as a waste of energy. For many College heads, abolition of ULU is another logical step towards the end of UoL.

It’s fair to say that ULU is unique in its federal nature. But if you can get away with abolishing an SU by fiat, you can get away with abolishing an SU by fiat.

Other institutions may not be able to legally abolish their student unions, but they will be able to take away all of their services and spaces and leave them with an underfunded shell.

The politics of space will become more prominent. Student unions in the UK have a remarkable amount of officially sanctioned space and off-message aesthetic and political independence, and especially where they are run by the left, managements will seek to undermine them and take over their stuff.

They can do this only if student unions are demobilised and weak; and any attempt to moderate unions’ politics or independence will make them weaker. But that is precisely the route that many in NUS [the National Union of Students] will want to go down.

Give these people an inch, and they’ll take your whole building. But unions across the country have been progressively trained to give ground — ideologically and in terms of cuts and material conditions — by national bureaucracies.

We are organising around three demands. The first is the defence of union autonomy; the second is better conditions for the cleaners on campus — who will be on strike in November when we march — and the third is the democratisation of universities and fighting for education as a public service.

I should stress that the primary aim — i.e. keeping ULU as a student-run thing — is explicitly not a campaign for the status quo; we are demanding that the building be handed, rent-free, to a new pan-London organisation which represents all students in the city — including students at newer unis and in Further Education.

We’ll be organising a referendum of all ULU’s 120,000 members on the plans for closure.

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