ULU is dead; long live the University of London?

College leaders vote to close ULU but say support for federal structure remains. Jack Grove writes

May 9, 2013

The demise of the University of London’s student union does not spell the end of the university itself, its deputy vice-chancellor has insisted.

College leaders last week voted to close the University of London Union, backing a review by a working party that said the organisation was duplicating many of the services provided by individual institutions’ unions.

According to the review, pan-London functions such as campaigning and organising intercollegiate sporting activities should be transferred to other bodies, while the union’s Bloomsbury headquarters would be run by the university.

Condemning the decision to close ULU, its president Michael Chessum said the abolition also reflected many colleges’ weak commitment to the university and the institution’s sense of “mortality” about its own future.

“It is clear that some vice-chancellors are not serious about the existence of the university,” he said. “Certain managements have a track record of undermining [it] whenever possible.”

His comments reflect continuing questions about whether colleges have outgrown the federal structure of the University of London, which was created in the 19th century.

The ULU review itself notes that individual colleges now provide the full “representational, social, welfare and sporting needs” of almost all the 120,000 students at institutions aligned to London.

“At least 60 per cent of students…are following [the] degrees of their home institution”, rather than London’s courses, it adds.

Unions also reported that students living close to the university’s headquarters - generally, those from University College London or Soas - tended to benefit disproportionately from ULU’s facilities.

This accusation could also be levelled at the university itself, with some institutions located more than hour away from Bloomsbury.

But Paul Webley, director of Soas and London’s deputy vice-chancellor, who led the ULU review, insisted that the university was still valued by its institutions despite their increased autonomy.

“It is inevitable that people will think about this and it is true that the University of London had a serious wobble about five years ago,” he said, referring to Imperial College London’s departure in 2007.

The university now provides a central careers support service, IT facilities and library provision for its 18 colleges and 10 institutes.

“If you went to each college, I’m sure they would say they get different things from the university,” Professor Webley said. “Any institution could leave at any time, but the fact they don’t suggests it is working for us.”

He insisted that the closure of ULU was not an attempt to muffle the student voice or to scale back services.

“This is not about switching money away from students. Rather it is addressing the federal structure that duplicates a lot of services already provided by student unions,” he said.

“We at Soas have made a commitment that all the money that went to ULU will now go straight to our own student union.”

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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