Readers familiar with University College London will be aware that in recent years there has been an icy tension between the university management and Student Union. It is no secret that the two groups don't get on, with a generally conservative (little c) senior management pitted against a predominantly far left SU. There has been a vote of no confidence in Provost Malcolm Grant (which he survived, owing it is suspected to the charisma he draws from his spectacular facial hair), at least two occupations, the UCL Stratford affair, a spat over the celebration of International Workers Day and innumerable other smaller incidents. In fact, in the three years I have been at UCL it is hard to think of a time that the union and Provost's office haven't been at loggerheads. Outside of UCL's activist community reaction to this sparring has been fairly mixed. Recently though the decision to close the university health centre, Gower Place Practice, has placed the majority of students firmly behind the SU's collective raised eyebrows.
The closure of the GPP is not an NHS initiative but stems rather from the decision by UCL management not to renew the lease for either the GP's practice or dental surgery on the site. According to the Save the UCL Health Centre campaign group UCL students make up 80% of GPP's registered patients, with over half of newly registered patients being international students. What is more the looming UCL 'Masterplan' campus redevelopment project shows no sign of an alternative site. Instead students will have to use not a single medical centre on the campus around which almost all academic activities and the majority of student halls are focused but one of three separate facilities across the Bloomsbury/Kings Cross/Euston area that is UCL's home. Students will also be required to register again at the start of every academic year to use these facilities.
The closure of GPP is symptomatic of a wider issue concerning the place of students within UCL. The university has only recently started opening libraries for 24 hours outside of exam periods, the Masterplan will reportedly see a reduction in lecture and library facilities on campus and UCL's student satisfaction ratings sit well below the level of an institution that can claim to be the world's fourth best university. Given UCL's link with the prestigious University College Hospital it is even more absurd that students who live and work (quite literally) in the shadow of a large university teaching hospital will not have access to a university linked GP practice. That right of students to have access to health care is a black and while issue yet exactly who is responsible for providing such a service is less clear. The university management seem satisfied that the new arrangements will still fulfill the needs of students, yet those in opposition argue that it is the university's duty to keep services such as GPP on campus. That being said the student union, which is rumoured to possess a bank balance that stretched into six figures, could also play a role in providing a space for GPP.
Having spoken to an academic from UCL management it would appear that not everyone involved in the decision is keen on the idea of UCL losing its on campus health service. Noises, official and otherwise, have also been made about the idea of a new health centre being developed or GPP being renovated but as of yet nothing concrete has emerged. It all begs the question as to what exactly the logic behind closing GPP is. With a central London location UCL is hard pressed to provide facilities that other campus universities have the space to build. As such the facilities we do have are highly valued and in high demand. If renovation was on the cards a period of closure would be understandable but the removal of a relatively small facility that nonetheless provides a vital service for students is puzzling at best.