London Student newspaper’s demise is short-sighted

Why is the University of London closing a place to build work skills?, asks Kevin Fong

July 31, 2014

This summer, unless something pretty miraculous happens, the London Student newspaper will shut its doors for the last time. The paper has been published in various guises for the best part of a century and has become the largest student newspaper in Europe. But none of this has convinced the University of London to continue to support it.

The news provoked a ripple of protest in the national press, along with heartfelt pleas from alumni who once worked for the publication – of whom I am one. This was followed by a robust response from the University of London, along the lines of: “We asked London students if anybody wanted it and pretty much nobody seemed to care.”

It’s hard, on the face of it, to argue with that. There was no cry of anguish from the hundred thousand or so students who study in the capital. There were no banner protests, no sit-ins, no walkouts. I’m guessing, though, that if you tried to measure the value of anything based on whether it sparked a student revolt, you’d end up with a pretty short and rather peculiar list of things deemed worth saving.

The amount needed to keep the London Student running is so small the constituent colleges probably wouldn’t even notice they’d spent it

The amount of money required to keep the London Student running is reportedly about £54,000 per year. That sum was previously provided by the University of London Union, which will itself close on 1 August. An appeal for the constellation of colleges that comprise the federation of the University of London to chip in has fallen on deaf ears, despite the fact that each would have to contribute such a small amount that they probably wouldn’t even notice that they’d spent it.

Why, then, can the publication not be salvaged? Many forces might be ranged against it. I’d imagine, for a start, that the assembled provosts of the University of London’s colleges wouldn’t really miss it much. But while it is true that occasionally it held them to account for stuff they might have preferred to forget, no one – neither the staff on the paper nor the college administrators – should overplay that. We’re not talking about a student re-enactment of All the President’s Men here: just the infrequent close-to-the-bone story that needed to be swatted away.

Anyway, I would argue that it’s a good thing to have such a function within colleges of higher education. Not so much to act as their conscience: that too would be overplaying it. It’s more like acknowledging the only member of your family honest and bold enough to tell you when you really shouldn’t go out wearing that ridiculous shirt. Yes, at times the antics of student journalists can border on the mischievous, perhaps even irresponsible. But the encouragement of creative but constructive insubordination and the management of its fallout is surely a core function of any good university.

The potential loss of the London Student highlights a much broader problem in today’s universities: their inability to understand and develop – even as they are under so much pressure to do so – those strands of extracurricular activity that genuinely add value to the student experience. The students who worked for the London Student were among the dwindling number who chose to participate in the full spectrum of extracurricular activity.

Properly deployed, the publication should have been regarded by college management as cement rather than a thorn. If I were in charge I’d bankroll the thing not for its expansive readership but for the value that those who have participated in it have clearly gained over the years.

While I was there, I was lucky enough to work under a series of brilliant editors. Their efforts spawned a string of award-winning writers and photographers, many of whose bylines and photography you’d probably recognise knocking around the national press today. It seems odd to me that at a time when the academy is criticised so heavily for not equipping its students with skills necessary to do battle in the real world, the University of London is so willing to pull the plug on an organisation that has a proven track record of doing precisely that.

Those holding the purse strings of University of London colleges shouldn’t think about it like Rupert Murdoch would think about an acquisition. The London Student is never going to be challenging The Sun on readership figures. They should think of it, instead, as like buying a beloved but underperforming lower league football club, knowing that it has good and bad seasons, knowing that you can fill the stands some years while no one seems to care during others, but being certain that it is capable of being an important part of the beautiful game.

Let me finish by telling you what the London Student was to me. Having never known or met any journalists or politicians, or been closer to the machinery of newspaper production than the stand giving away free copies of The Telegraph at the freshers’ fair, it was a great leveller. It showed me that the gap between us know-nothing undergraduates and the social and political machinery of society was not as great as I had always imagined. It also left me with enduring friendships, and taught me some of the most important lessons of my university career. It would be a tragedy if future generations of students were unable to experience those benefits for themselves.

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