By David Dahlborn, UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies
After shutting down debate at the last UCLU General Assembly when his side failed to win a political argument, Gabriel Gavin wrote an article for Pi to justify himself, in which he covers up his lack of arguments by throwing playground insults at me and others. Ahead of the next session of the General Assembly I’d like to take the opportunity to respond, and present my case for why UCLU should remain a campaigning organisation that stands up for students’ needs.
Very soon, UCL management will once again increase the rent in their halls of residence by at least five percent. This rent hike will place yet another heavy burden upon students already hard-pressed to make ends meet. As a socialist who wants justice, equality and cooperation to replace exploitation, division and coercion, I find this disgusting and I will fight against it.
Why do I, as an unpaid activist and union representative, devote my evenings, lunch breaks and weekends to organising assemblies, build protests and write to UCL managers? Because, unlike the Gabriel Gavins and the Samuel Inkersoles of the world, I’ve decided to do the work actually required to concretely improve standards and conditions for students here at UCL.
Increasing rent is a political decision made by UCL bosses, who dictate how hard halls residents should be squeezed for cash. This decision will also force working class students to take on more debt and stress while in halls, if they’re lucky enough to afford university in London at all. For the past five years, UCL has consistently increased the rent far beyond the rate of inflation. The consequences of this will be felt in the pockets of students, in our mental health and among those excluded from UCL altogether simply because they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
Fortunately, we have the means to help us change this – a political, representative and campaigning students’ union. Through collective action we can challenge UCL management, and UCLU is the best tool we students possess to channel our demands and focus our collective bargaining power on bring down the rent. I would be the first person to admit that UCLU has its flaws (don’t we all?), but I also stress that it’s activists like me who’re the ones taking actual steps to make it better and more representative.
There is a tendency among certain careerists, and right-wing demagogues and sabbatical officers to criticise the work that my friends, colleagues and comrades on the left are doing to improve the conditions of students at UCL. These would-be union-wreckers, clearly, either do not understand what a union is for, or are happy to see the counted attempts by the university bosses’ to exploit and oppress us but raising rent or ignoring campus racism and sexism.
The case for why this position is wrong has been made explained eloquently elsewhere. Therefore, I’m not surprised that there is also a tendency among these critics to find themselves incapable of intellectually justify their arguments. Much like a children deprived of attention by an adult, these right-wingers reverted to ignoring rational arguments, shouting loudly and spreading lies and insults. Suffice to say, none of their time has been spent on getting UCL to reduce the rent. To the contrary, efforts made by Gavin and Inkersole to axe the Education and Campaigns Officer, Women’s Officer and BME Students’ Officer would – if successful – have severely decimated the ability of UCLU to stand up for our needs.
My actions, as a socialist activist, will, in the meantime, have an actual impact on the lives and conditions of current and future UCL students. At the same time as right-wing self-publicists portray themselves as some sort of ‘voice of the masses’, while doing nothing but attack our efforts to organise ourselves as a student body, I and other activists have been organising a focused and assertive campaign to challenge the university bosses’ rent hikes. I’ve pressed UCL to financially compensate students who experienced hot water cut in halls. I’ve forced UCL to acknowledge the important of disability access in student accommodation. And, while right-wingers have happily accepted £9,000 tuitions fees, I’ve helped build a grassroots national campaign for free education. I’ve done this by engaging with students, by talking to literally hundreds of people and by representing their views and opinions. This term, I will step up the campaign against rent exploitation until UCL students have won a genuine improvement. None of these efforts to improve our material conditions would be possible without a UCLU that can be relied upon to take action for its members.
This is precisely why we need a political, campaigning students’ union that puts the material needs of its members ahead of the careers and egos the right-wingers who want to cut it. This is why we need more liberation officers, not fewer. As UCL becomes increasingly like an authoritarian government this necessity becomes ever more pressing. As UCL bulldozes our student theatre, wreaks havoc for sports clubs by timetabling lectures on Wednesday afternoons and charges us rent far above our maintenance loans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t take a stand against the bosses they will make UCL exclusive to the children of the wealthy and irreversibly damage student civil society. UCLU and I will continue to fight the rent increases and stand on the side of everybody who wants university to be available for everybody regardless of their background. I hope you will join me in this.
– Now, I’m off to write to UCL Accommodation!