Over the past month a lot of my time has been dedicated to responding to the review that is taking place into ULU. Many ULU members and supporters will be unaware this is even taking place. I wanted to write something to explain what has been going on. To put it simply: I think the future of ULU is at stake.
ULU is currently undergoing a funding review by the University of London. The review is “to consider the requirements of a federal students’ union, how such a union might complement local students’ unions and local services and how ULU stacks up against these criteria” also the “demand for services and representation from a central federal students’ Union”.
The last review into ULU took place in 2008. It concluded a cut in ULU’s funding, with the consequence of a further withdrawal of its campaigns budget. This review has also come about because of dissatisfaction expressed by ULU Sabbatical officers last year.
Over the past month I have been working with ULU Students’ Unions on forming their submissions to the funding review, the response of ULU as a whole, as well as my own submission and various other parts of the organisation. It has taken a lot of work! This has not just been responding to the funding review itself but also reacting, over many months, to the deep seated criticisms that people hold for ULU. I’ll come back to this later.
I have a few concerns about the ULU funding review:
The University of London is seeking feedback from ULU officers, trustees and staff, university senior managers, ULU Students’ Union officers. These are stakeholders, or active participants in the work of ULU. This is useful and necessary. The review is also taking input from the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) group and the National Union of Students. I feel asking these two groups is problematic. It is no secret that NUS hope to set up a rival representative structure, with policy being passed at the 2011 national conference. BUCS have in recent months taken over control of some London sports league provision, which ULU used to occupy, and hope to take up more of the competition too. My concern is that both BUCS and NUS clearly hold an interest in sidelining ULU for their own purposes, and inviting their opinion may provide them with an opportunity to impose their will at the expense of ULU services and representation.
My second concern is that there is no formal place on the main governing committee for students. Whilst students are being asked for their input to the review, the committee leading is made up of senior managers in the University of London colleges (from places like UCL, Goldsmiths, RHUL, IOE, Queen Mary, CSSD and SOAS). I do not disagree with the need for UoL senior figures, but the lack of student representation on the decision making board misses a valuable opportunity to properly consult the student body.
The third concern is the speed at which the funding review is moving. The University of London agreed on the need for a review in late September, 2012. ULU and other students’ unions were asked for a submission in mid – October, and are being asked to respond by the 2nd November (last Friday). The ULU Funding review hopes to make its conclusion by February 2013. This makes serious, detailed submissions very hard, particularly during such a busy period.
Most of my conversations with the University of London have shown that the UoL would like ULU to continue, but the form of its future existence is up for discussion. I have concerns that its representative function and campaigning function will be pulled, and that it may be made into a completely commercial organisation.
Campaigning and representation are central aspects of ULU, and make it what it is. Local Students’ Unions recognise the fundamental importance of a pan – London body which brings together students and allows them to work together in a common alliance. However, to guard ULU’s campaigning and representative capacity is going to be a fight.
I think it’s quite right to criticise ULU’s past inaction. However, I believe we have an opportunity to rebuild ULU on a new foundation, to make it the effective and credible union students across London need. Local Unions and students now hold a different view of ULU to the one they held when I started. This is a ULU which is both a both a vibrant centre for activism and campaigning and an efficient, professional and well-organized representative and servicing body. For me, the two go together. Only on that basis can we take on the many challenges we face, from fighting cuts and the government’s chilling plans for education to providing strong support for sports teams and societies, from organizing the growing number of students who work to developing our lobbying capacities.
This year ULU is undergoing a revival. This year we are working closely with local colleges, contributing positively to the local work but also provide a cross London perspective to that work. We are developing a lobbying wing to put pressure on local councils, the GLA and local MPs. This has already proven itself as we were influential in stopping the deportation of 3000 international London Met students, and stopping a situation where thousands of international students were being forced to que in the cold and rain for hours to wait to register at police stations. We are running a massive housing campaign calling for decent, affordable accommodation for all. We are acting as an organising hub for the London student anti cuts movement. We hold regular London wide assemblies and are organising alongside FE students, holding central events on hot topics, for example the issue of unpaid internships. We are also able to compliment the work of local campaigns by providing activist training, materials that local unions don’t have the time or expertise to provide. ULU can offer support to colleges that are less financially and resource endowed, particularly small and specialist colleges. We have set up a London Student liberation Network which brings together students and activists to plan campaigns, organise initiatives and provide mutual support. This year at ULU, I’m also working with students’ union and trade union activists across London to launch Student Worker Solidarity, an awareness-raising and organising initiative aimed at helping students know their rights as workers and gain the activist skills needed to organise to fight for change in the workplace. We will be running skills shares, training events, ‘Know your Rights’ stalls, conferences, organising with and engaging with student staff on London campuses and much more. ULU can bring together campaigns on different campuses, support and mobilise for local campaigns, broadcast news to wider layers of students, and importantly provide information and materials to colleges for their own use. There is also the longer term project of opening ULU’s membership structures to make it a proper, London wide Union.
As it stands the University of London are considering the submissions, and are now in the process of interviewing local unions, Vice Chancellors, and will interview myself in December. I will update this blog with further information on the funding review as it develops.