The fate of the University of London Union: Why should you care?

If you’re anything like me, you didn’t know about the arrest of Michael Chessum, University of London Union (ULU) President, on 14 November 2013.  You didn’t know about the student protest occupation of Senate House on 4 December 2013.  And you deleted that e-mail from Rob Park, Chief Counting Officer, Birkbeck SU, entitled Birkbeck Elections.

Why get involved in student politics?  It won’t help you pass your course.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it isn’t a virtue.  Getting involved isn’t a requirement.  Knowing about what’s involved arguably is.  So what’s going on?

If you looked more closely than me at that e-mail from Rob Park, you would have seen that it was inviting you to participate in a poll on the Future of ULU (the umbrella union for some 18 University of London Colleges).

The poll is a response to a decision by the trustees of the University on 22 May 2013 to implement the recommendations of the Review Group who had been commissioned by the University of London to consider the future of ULU back in September 2012.

The Review, published on 3 May 2013, had put forward a number of recommendations including: the ULU cease to be a representative student body; the ULU’s headquarters be refurbished and become a self-financing and sustainable student centre; pan-London student representation (i.e. wider than just the University of London) should be investigated.

Why were these recommendations made?  In his letter of 22 May 2013 – – Rob Park informs us it was because the Colleges of the University of London did not view ULU as being value for money (Birkbeck College for example, pays a subscription to ULU of £70,000 per year).

In essence, ULU aren’t doing anything that can’t be done by College Student Unions or the NUS.  In place of ULU, the Review Group recommended the re-direction of the ULU subscription to local services and students’ unions.

In response to this decision by the trustees of the University, the student unions are canvassing all students across the University of London to provide their input by way of a poll, with just one question to answer: “Should ULU’s buildings, activities and campaigns continue to be run democratically by students?”

It seems for some students however, this cause of action may not carry enough weight.  After all, could the results of the poll be used to sway the University, even if the outcome is a resounding “yes”?

The protest demonstrations on 14 November 2013 which led to Michael Chessum’s arrest under Section 11 of the Public Order Act, which covers the right for “advance notice of public processions”, have been followed up by the occupation of Senate House on 4 December 2013.

In a statement from the University of London occupation posted by BloomsburyFightBack on 4 December, it was claimed: “We have taken over the main management corridor and Vice Chancellor’s office in opposition to the way our university is being run and the way the higher education sector as a whole is controlled.  This action is restorative; displacing the undemocratic and unaccountable management with a democratic space for the free pursuit of knowledge, critical enquiry and dissent.”

Fighting words indeed, but putting aside issues of who is in the right, the main question is still: are we better off with or without the ULU?

The University of London have sought to make their case: ( This was in turn rebutted by Michael Chessum (

If one uses these documents alone to evaluate the role of the ULU, it would appear that one could pick out a number of areas to justify the importance of the ULU: students rather than staff run the building in Malet Street; it’s useful having an umbrella organisation to co-ordinate regional student representation; they add value as a hub for students societies and activities, particularly for those clubs and societies that cannot be run locally by colleges.

Now behind all of this is, of course, the issue of finance.  The University want to stop paying a grant to a union and repossess a building to make it self-financing to save money.

Is this a saving that you agree with?  If you haven’t already done so, why don’t you get yourself down to that building in Malet Street and check it out?  Do you like it as it is?  Because as things stand, from August 2014, it will change so that it becomes less studenty and more commercial.

So now it’s over to you.  You have until 12 noon on 12 December 2013 to make your vote in that poll.

Women in Shakespeare a three day conference at Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre jointly delivers the Birkbeck MA programme, Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance. It kicked off a three-day conference last night, Women in Shakespeare.

The conference includes discussions on women in Shakespeare and in scholarship editing and feminism. It will also honour Professor Ann Thompson, a renowned Shakespearean expert, who recently retired from King’s College London.

Thompson was described by her colleague Neal Taylor as a “scholar, teacher, feminist, journalist, and Shakespearean”. He went on to describe her as a person who led by example and that “she was superb to work for and superb to work with”.

Thompson herself was a little bit more restrained about her accomplishments, but as the evening went on it was evident that his words about her were correct.

Her delivery was impeccable and after hearing Thompson speak for just a short while, you were not surprised to learn she was the curator of the Women’s Wit season as well.

This event has been well subscribed to and tickets for Saturday are completely sold out. No further tickets will be sold for the event, but the Globe will re-release seats if there are confirmed cancellations.

It may well be worth your time to drop by the box office today or Sunday to try and secure entry.  Many academics will lead the discussions, such as Professor Lois Potter and Professor Kate McLuskie.

If you’re interested in the role of women in Shakespeare’s writing, then this is an opportunity to hear the views and theories of some of the leading names in Shakespearean studies. I’d urge you to try and get a ticket for this weekend.

The box office is at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT – opening hours Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm and Sunday 10am – 4pm.

Fury after break-up of student sit-in

Accusations were flying today after the forcible ending of an occupation yesterday by students of offices in Senate House, headquarters of the University of London.
Students accused the police and university authorities of heavy-handed tactics, while the university accused protesters of irresponsible actions.

There was further trouble this afternoon when some 200 angry students marched around the campus in protest at yesterday’s police action. They were followed by dozens of police and there were at least  15 more arrests.

Meanwhile University of London obtained an injunction banning further occupations on the campus, and also issued  a possession order for the University of London building.

Yesterday afternoon some 60 students took over a suite of management offices in protest at the threat to close the University of London Union, poor conditions for contract staff, the sell-off of student loans and low pay for lecturers. They accused the union of “behaving in a disgraceful and unaccountable manner” and listed 10 demands which needed to be met before they left.

Police and security staff evicted the protesters in the early evening.

There were clashes between police, security staff and students within Senate House and outside, where dozens had gathered to support the occupation. Eight people were arrested, with several being held overnight. Photographs and video appeared to show protesters being shoved, dragged and even punched.
The University of London Union called the university’s action against the sit-in “a violent attempt to harass and silence dissent on campus. Their actions are a disgrace, and show their disregard for both the welfare of their students and their own university community.”

The union said the occupation was forcibly ended. It said: “initial reports indicate that protesters were assaulted by both police and security: thrown to the ground, kicked and punched, and dragged to the ground by their hair. When supporters gathered outside to show support for the occupation, they were beaten back and assaulted.”

Rachel Wenstone, a vice-president of the National Union of Students, referring also to similar protests  at University of Sussex, said: “We are absolutely appalled by the handling of student protesters we have seen in both Sussex and London in recent days.

“Peaceful protest and occupation is part of the history of the student movement and one we are very proud of. They are … available to students for when there is no other way to get their voices heard.

“It is alarming to see universities react to this action with these disproportionate and draconian measures.”

Chris Cobb, chief operating officer at the University of London, said in a statement today that the occupation had been a “disgraceful and aggressive act, which placed the safety of our staff at risk”.

It said staff had locked themselves in their offices because the demonstrators appeared “aggressive and intimidating”.

“The university will always support peaceful and legitimate protest, but invading our working environment and blocking fire escapes is potentially life threatening and plays no part in democratic dissent,” said Mr Cobb.

“The university will never under any circumstances enter into a dialogue with any group or group of individuals who adopt this approach,” he added.

Senate House was locked today.

At 3pm some 200 students gathered at University of London Union in Malet Street to protest about the police action yesterday and marched around the campus, shadowed by a heavy police presence. Scuffles in the Euston Square area and more arrests were reported. Students tried to block streets to impede police. Some 40 marchers were allegedly “kettled”, or hemmed in by police in riot gear, near Euston Square station, and many of those trapped inside the “kettle” were arrested. They were taken away in vans, it is thought to Lewisham police station.

The protesters dispersed after about two hours.

Those held overnight at Holborn police station were freed this afternoon, most without charge. Some students had stayed outside the station all night in support of those inside.


Students occupy Senate House


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Dozens of protesting students occupied offices in Senate House in Bloomsbury, headquarters of the University of London, for several hours this afternoon before being ejected by police.

More than 100 protesters took over the main management corridor and the Vice-Chancellor’s office, locking themselves in with a bike lock. They said they would not leave until their demands were met.These included:

  • Outsourced staff such as cleaners to have the same sick pay, holiday pay and pensions as in-house staff, and the IWGB union should be recognised;
  • The threatened student-run University of London Union in Malet Street should stay in student hands;
  • The university should back opposition to the sell-off of student loans;
  • The university should back higher education workers in their current pay dispute (there was a strike yesterday).

The students entered at about 2.30pm and refused to leave when asked. Most staff in the area left although staff elsewhere in the building carried on working normally.

The occupiers included students from University College London, SOAS, Royal Holloway and a variety of other colleges, including about five from Birkbeck.

The area being occupied was a large horse-shoe shaped section with about 20 offices.

Rosie Holland, a Royal Holloway student and one of the protesters,  spoke to Lamp and Owl from inside the occupied area. She said the aims of the protest included to stop the university union being closed down, to get fairer rents for students in university accommodation, and to get the conditions for contract staff that they deserved.
She said the protesters blamed the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Adrian Smith, who was not present during the occupation, for the decisions on the ULU and staff pay, and that was why his office was targeted. “He is the one making the decisions,” she said.
She said his office was “absolutely lovely”, with its own bathroom.

As she spoke two security guards had locked themselves in this office, along with some other staff, and students were being refused entry.
Rosie said the operation had been pre-planned and “quite easy”, and that the whole of the management corridor had been occupied.

A burly security man had managed to “barge into” the management area before students had secured it. He and a colleague were the two locked in the Vice-Chancellor’s office, along with about 10 staff.

In the early evening dozens of police arrived in about six vans. They gained entry to the area and the students were forced to leave. At least one person was thought to have been arrested amid clashes in the foyer and near the library.

The building was cleared and locked up and police then faced dozens of chanting protesters outside the building. There were  angry scenes and pushing and shoving of protesters by the police near Senate House and in the Malet Street area, while a police helicopter hovered overhead. Some protesters tried to barricade a street with wheelie bins to stop police vans moving through to pick up the officers at Senate House and more arrests appear to have been made. The police eventually left about 8.30pm.

Occupations have been held at other universities and colleges recently including Goldsmiths, Sussex, Warwick, Liverpool, Ulster, Birmingham, Exeter and Sheffield.

Is Birkbeck in danger of being ‘lost in translation’?

From time to time the arts remind us of a history that we may have forgotten, or relate to us a history we may not have known.  Such was the case with the play Blue Stockings that I saw recently at the Globe Theatre.  The play is written by Jessica Swale and based on the novel Blue Stockings by Jane Robinson.  The story of the founding of Girton College in Cambridge in 1869 for women scholars is compelling and relevant as it touches upon many of the issues that surround access to education in our times.

What struck me after watching this play was that women across the world are still fighting for access to education.  I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted that it was only in 1948 that the first women graduated from Cambridge University.  Women around the world are continuing to fight for access, equality and quality of education, but it takes a case like that of Malala Yousafzai for a significant portion of the media and public bodies to focus on the issue.  Blue Stockings shows that this country has come a long way in 65 years.  The play also prompted me to consider access to education and quality of education in modern Britain.

Access to quality education, especially at the tertiary level, is becoming increasingly difficult as higher education costs soar.  As a result, many students who wish to continue their education at the university level have had to look at alternate ways in which to achieve their goals.  One of those alternatives is by continuing their education on a part-time basis.  As a student of Birkbeck for the past few years, I believe that you could not have a more diverse student population, and the diversity of both students and lecturers is a big attraction here at Birkbeck.  Most recently, however, we have had more younger students who in previous years would perhaps have been horror-struck even to contemplate having to attend Birkbeck, which traditionally has had an older student body.

While I welcome sitting in a classroom with young students who express fresh, optimistic ideas and approaches, I cannot help but wonder if these students are being properly cared for by my beloved institution.  Are they enjoying what is on offer at Birkbeck?  The Birkbeck experience is not necessarily the same as it would be in the type of institution they had perhaps envisioned themselves attending, but it does provide quality education for all its students.

Education at the university level certainly is not the right choice for everyone, nor is it a necessity.  We all know, or should know, that a university education does not guarantee employment and if you wish to increase and/or ensure a chance of employment then a vocational or technical institution may be a wiser option.  However, universities offer the opportunity for students to explore varying interests and, as such, attendance should be accessible to those students who wish to pursue higher education.  In short, our education system needs to ensure that there is equal access to quality education irrespective of financial means for everyone.

As a person who was unable to complete university in my youth, I am delighted that Birkbeck runs the programme that it does.  I believe that education around the globe at any level should not be exclusive or restricted to the privileged but that all should have access to education according to their abilities and desire.  Right here at home, I am particularly interested in British students attaining a level of education that allows them to contribute to British society in a meaningful way and to be competitive in the global market.

For centuries, the halls of Oxford, Durham or Cambridge were closed to students not belonging to the dominant religious, ethnic and social groups in England.  Male students from these “other” groups began graduating from Cambridge in the late 19th century.  The women of Cambridge had to wait until after WWII.

Blue Stockings reminds us that to preserve the legacy of the women of Girton College is to support all groups who seek access to be educated.

Industrial Action by Independent Workers Union of Great Britain

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) staged two days of industrial action on 28th and 29th November 2013 with a picket line forming outside the Senate House, University of London, Russell Square entrance.

The union is unrecognised by the University of London and Balfour Beatty Workplace — the company through which the striking workers are sourced.

The University of London, like many large organisations, outsource some of their roles to external contractors, which can lead to a differing and often better set of working conditions for those working for the original organisation versus the ones provided to those working for the contractors.

This dispute centres around that issue together with the fact that Balfour Beatty and the University of London refuse to recognise the union.

“We demand that we be entitled to the same sick pay, holidays, and pensions as our colleagues who work directly for the university,” said Sonia Chura, Vice-Chair of the London Branch of IWGB.

“As our benefits are structured now, we are financially constrained to come into work sick, have a difficult time visiting our families who are often in far away countries, and will retire into poverty.”

On 29th November it was announced that some progress had been made with concessions towards sick pay, annual leave and pension rights for all Balfour Beatty Workplace employees. Talks continue to finalise the agreements and the IWGB confirm that they will continue their struggle to become a recognised union.

No comment from Balfour Beatty or the University of London was available.


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