The harsh reality of the University London Union

The recent decision to close the University London Union should not just be welcomed, but celebrated...

Victoria Monro
On 6 May 2013 11:53

It was on the eve of an historic vote that Michael Chessum, the University of London Union's (ULU) President, took the opportunity to write a piece in the Guardian presenting one of the most biased, inaccurate, and manipulative accounts of what ULU means to London’s students.

When Chessum's piece ran, the University of London and its various colleges were about to vote as to whether its union, ULU, should continue to exist as a funded-entity. The result was such that the union, established 1921, is now set to close. But apparently the jig is not up for Chessum and his deputy, Daniel Cooper, who have vowed to fight on to “save” it.

Well, turkeys scarcely vote for Christmas, do they?

The truth however, is that ULU is redundant. In his article, Chessum claims that it represents 120,000 London students, whereas in reality, the Union would be lucky to represent just 5,000 of us.

ULU election turnout per London college, is scandalously low, with the average across London colleges hovering at a paltry 2.01 percent. The highest turnout was Heythrop – a tiny college at which a staggering 5.28 percent of students turned out to vote in ULU elections – a total of 45 raw votes.

These figures would be seen as nothing short of diabolical in regular, mainstream politics. Yet Chessum wants us to believe that the Union he was elected to lead, where he got 1,355 votes from 120,000 students, truly represents the London student body. To be faced with these statistics and still claim success is an example of the embarrassing state of student politics, and more obviously, clues us in as to ULU’s lack of democratic mandate.

ULU is simply irrelevant, evidenced in part by voter turnout, but also because by its own admission that it spends most of its funds on renting swanky offices. This then begs the question – precisely what is ULU doing for Londoners beyond providing a bit of office space and subsidised beverages? We are not “vulnerable” without ULU though it might suit management egos to think we are. Nor are we empowered by it. For most of us, our interaction with ULU is limited solely to the perennial search for cheap pints, which can obviously be done elsewhere.

Our own college's respective unions have a greater commitment to pastoral care than ULU, giving us access to welfare officers, legal advisers etc. so that we are supported should we find ourselves in unfortunate circumstances. Is there a need for ULU, given the superior performance of our college unions?

The concept of a University of London Union, and to some extent, the University of London itself, clings to this idea that without ULU, London’s colleges would become insular – but where’s the evidence? Our universities work together, students travel between them to take modules not available at their own places of study, our societies open their doors to attendees from all other universities indiscriminately. The entire nature of living and studying in London is the sense of community – and yes, rivalry – that exists in this environment. Each college is on each others' doorsteps. Like it or not, our colleges are stuck together, and it is geographical proximity, not ULU, that forges this dynamic.

The likes of Chessum might see this as a market-driven assault on democracy but the truth is, scapegoating market forces for what we’re seeing with ULU and higher education generally, is to display a huge misunderstanding of basic economics.

There is nothing resembling a free market in education – to anybody, that must be obvious. Asking customers to pay more for a good is not akin to bringing market forces in. Do we have a culture of private universities in Britain? No. Do we have government policy to encourage the building of more private universities? No, more’s the pity.

So does Chessum speak for all students when he claims on our behalf, that the closure of ULU demonstrates democracy is not compatible with markets? Does he speak for the politics students, the philosophy students or economics students, who have significant reason to think otherwise?

Leaving aside the dubious claim that ULU is in any way “democratic”, the analysis of why this is happening to ULU is completely wrong. It was set up to protect student welfare, to represent students and their needs at the management level, and to ensure that we were safeguarded. It has failed on every metric.

This is part of the reason we don’t turn up to its elections. Because we know what ULU really is: a socialist talking shop, where socialists-cum-communists have congregated, hijacked the Union, and used it as a springboard to enforce their minority mindset on the majority.

They then have the audacity to use our vast student body as “evidence” that students crave their political agenda, because we “voted them in”. Except, we didn’t.

In between deciding not to lay a wreath on behalf of ULU on Remembrance Sunday (in solidarity with socialist comrades) and a myriad of other manoeuvres designed to politicise the Union and align it directly with the far-left cause, ULU’s “elected” representatives have shown their true colours.

What an ugly, selfish shade of red it is.

Victoria Monro is a student at the University College London


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