An Idiot’s Guide To ULU With Michael Chessum

We ask the ULU President why we should care about The Union

interview Michael Chessum referendum student politics ULU unions University of London

The general feeling towards the dissolution of ULU at the moment is a bit ‘meh.’ After getting bored with seemingly endless protests and arrests, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole student population of London is entirely apolitical.

With a referendum about a student-run Union’s future existence  garnering little real attention, we decided to  grab a few minutes with its current leader Michael Chessum to see what’s going on with our most controversial institution.

The Big Cheese-um

So what is actually happening with ULU at the moment? 

In May of last year the University of London released reports saying that the University of London will cease to exist from August 1st 2014. That review was started in response to people saying that ULU wasn’t doing very well. I think they were right to say that ULU wasn’t doing very well, but I don’t think we should abolish it.

The process by which that happened was that there was no student representation on the panel that wrote the report, and there was no student representation that approved the report. Under that, what will happen is that the building will be essentially taken over by University management. They will run it as a student services centre.

The other side is the democratic bit and the campaigning bit. It’s important to say that no one has argued for the status quo of ULU to continue. What we’re looking for is a pan-London Union, and we’ve kind of got that. NUS London has started and the people who know run it are elected, they’re on side with everything we want to do.

There are three outcomes of next year: the review goes forward, they take over the building and student representation ceases to exist on a developmental level. The second is the status quo, and the third of which is a system whereby ULU in its present form ceases to exist, but a new pan-London Union representing all of the students take over the services and activities and does the same thing but with more membership. It’s the third of those that we’re really interested in.

So if the third option were to go ahead, how would that benefit students day-to-day, perhaps ones who aren’t necessarily interested in student politics? 

Well everyone should be interested in student politics, perhaps not in the tittle-tattle of student politics, but interested in the having power and collective will in relation to issues that affect them.

Everyone is interested in housing for instance.  More importantly, there would be a collective body of student unions which have a reputation for being a lot more radical and active than the rest of the country and NUS London would play a role of co-ordinating the student movement when NUS failed to do so. At the moment ULU kind of plays that role but NUS will be in a much better position to play that role. There are all kinds of reasons why you’d want that.

A lot of students profess not to be interested in student politics but what they mean is they’re not interested in bland, stupid campaigns for election. Which I think is fair enough. I think everyone is mostly interested in student politics in the correct sense.


Should it still be run by students?


Would you blame the apathy ULU has seen recently on that body of radical students doing the ‘tittle-tattle’? 

Yes and no. I think there have been genuine failures with the way ULU has been run. It is fair to say that our elections haven’t been great. There are all kinds of reasons why that is. Number one, the University cuts have reduced funding for election services back in 2005, and at the same time forced us to run elections across campuses for the first time, so there are all kind of reasons why that’s bad.

I think there’s a lot of complete crap that’s thrown at ULU and anyone who is vaguely involved in it. It’s organisation that everyone loves to hate and I don’t always love it myself. ULU has a tendency for attracting the kind of scandals and storms on a regular basis which is very tiring and takes a lot of time if you’re an elected officer. I would broadly put that down to the kind of people who gravitate around ULU. There are a lot of people who are frankly quite vindictive and behave very badly. That happens anywhere where you have a lot of hacks, not just interested in student politics, but student politics is the main thing they do.

And so you would seek to remedy that if the review doesn’t go ahead? 

Sure, we’ve had the elections controversy, we’ve had Jen Isaacson-gate, all kinds of crap. I think the way that you get on with stuff, the way you distract from all that crap is actually by getting on and doing things that are relevant to students.

Us having a squabble about which election regulation is valid at a particular time or whether the referendum was called in exactly the right procedural way doesn’t really interest students and rightly so. I think a lot of people get worked up over things that are incredibly boring. The way that we combat that is fighting on issues like housing and cuts, and transport and liberation, politics, that sort of stuff.

So you are aware that from the perspective of a student who just goes to lectures and hangs out with their friends, a body run without all of those squabbling students would be a lot more appealing? As long as the services are still there they’re fine. 

Well there’s no guarantee that the services will exist, as there’s no guarantee that the bars or the clubs or swimming pool will continue to exist. If I was a University of London manager right now I would be putting out firm guarantees that these things will exist in the short to medium term and then I’d be looking to the future.

Take catering for instance. The UOL made a loss on catering. It’s complicated, I’m not an accountant.We do that because it’s a really valued service and a lot of people really like it. If I’m a manager I don’t give a crap, and I’m going to outsource it to Upper Crust or Costa, and I think that’s what we’ll see happening. If I were a University of London manger I wouldn’t be interested in my members, because I’m interested in making money. The way you would do that is basically to knock everything out of it and turning it into a plush conferencing space. The big money is from companies booking rooms.

Without democratic control of the Union we don’t have a clue what will happen to it, anything could happen. I don’t trust any University managers. Most of them don’t behave in the best interests of students.

You honestly don’t think they’d care about students at all in that regard? 

It is a big problem for student Unionism in general if managers can come in and say with no student involvement that “your student Union no longer exists” and that’s not just a problem for ULU that’s a problem for every student union.

More importantly, who is this person who is saying they don’t really care about this stuff? If the student movement and student unionism hadn’t happened and people hadn’t taken to the streets, and there hadn’t been democratic institutions, higher education would be a lot smaller than it is now, fees would be a lot higher than they are now, housing would be a lot more expensive and the quality of education would be a lot more expensive than it is now.

I think it is our responsibility to stand up for student unionism and collectivism. If there are people saying they don’t care, it’s not always my job to listen and take that on board. My message would be: “Do care. If you don’t care you’re wrong.”

Full of nasty managers?

So would you try and get more students interested in the union if the review didn’t go ahead? 

As the review was released, we were already writing a massive governmental overhaul of ULU. We were introducing a lot more officer positions which we did but we were also more importantly integrating the voting system with local colleges and that would’ve meant the turnout would’ve gone up massively. We would’ve transformed it into something better.

Do you feel that you and your fellow offficers best represent the majority of regular students? 

Yes, I suppose. We won an election, and in general the political consensus among student unions in London is basically along the lines that we proposed them. It’s not just an election of course, we are held to account by a senate which is all of the student union, the president of London, they’re all very intimidating people, but in general they agree with us. We get our motions through.

I think we are, on all of the major issues, on education, funding, housing, fighting the ULU review. I think if you asked most people they would say ‘disagree’ [to the review]. I think we do represent opinion, but it’s impossible to tell, because how can one ever tell? Representative politics can’t work on the basis that we try to guess the inner workings of absolutely every single person.

So what will the current referendum actually do? Do UOL have to listen to it? 

No, but it will give us a show of support for the continuance of ULU as a student-run building and I think that’s important. So yeah, we’ve got that going on. What it will mean is up to interpretation.

Are you optimistic  about the outcome of the review? 

I am, yes. For  anew, pan-London union with student representation. But it still relies on us mobilising students. Our job is to make closing ULU more trouble than it’s worth.