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I Shouldn't Have to Force My University to Be Accountable to Its Students

05/04/2016 13:16 | Updated 05 April 2016

Over the last week, there's been a lot of talk about whether my university, UCL, should have threatened me for publication of a story I still consider to be unquestionably in the public interest. Documents obtained from UCL due to management's security blunders gave answers to students' questions on accommodation, theatre closures, and overcrowded teaching spaces, and directly contradicted some of the College's public statements. However I was not allowed to publish them, despite having legally acquired the information, because UCL objected to the breach of confidentiality (which, frankly, was theirs).

UCL is not the first university to come down hard on its student press, and there's more to this story than the questionable ethics of threatening a student journalist who acted in the public interest. More widely, this is about universities becoming increasingly undemocratic, and unaccountable to their students. Frankly, I worry that my university, like many others, is seeking profit and reputation at the expense of its students, and at the expense of the outstanding academia that made it great. I find this particularly frustrating when students have virtually no say in how the university conducts itself, and cannot represent their interests in any meaningful way.

Last Thursday's Cut The Rent demonstration was the culmination of a lot of frustration with UCL management. While not everyone will agree with the means of protest - setting fire to an effigy of UCL Vice Provost Operations, Rex Knight, on the Euston Road viaduct reportedly led to fire services being called to the scene - strong anger towards the way management have handled the rent strike, theatre closures, and my case, is justified.

At the beginning of February, Director of UCL Estates, Andrew Grainger, told UCL, Cut The Rent activists that the College does not consider students from low-income backgrounds when setting rents in arguably UCL's biggest media cock-up in recent months. Around the same time, management announced the closure of UCL's only on-campus theatre until 2018, initially proposing no replacement venues in the interim and providing no explanation for the closure until very recently. The latter issue has been resolved, with management promising a theatre will be reopened on the same site in 2018, but both show an amazing lack of consideration for the student body that should not be part of a major university. Of course people are angry.

When Pi Media accessed UCL's confidential information, I thought we had a valuable chance to hold the university to account and make positive change, making management answerable to any issues raised, and to their mistakes. But actually, we shouldn't have to. Student media shouldn't have to uncover the bad things a university does and hold it to account on behalf of the student body. The university should disclose information to its students irrespective of external involvement, it should consider their views and needs; in short, it should be accountable.

Within the last 2 years, Exeter's student paper has been threatened with legal action after exposing staff expenses, while Bristol has used all-student mailing lists to make unfounded claims that their student paper had printed a story with "significant inaccuracies" (it hadn't). However, Bristol never threatened to sanction journalists, and rebuilt a positive relationship with the student paper and its editor, later agreeing to set up a task force to address issues raised in its article. While UCL cannot undo its threats and cannot un-force me to delete all my copies of the documents, they can release the most important bits of information to students and allow them to respond, and they can make efforts to rebuild their relationship with a student body feeling utterly let down by College management's massive lack of transparency.

Because what this comes down to is the question of who the university is for; whether it's consciously for students, actively seeking their input in its decision-making, or whether it's for Vice Chancellors who behave increasingly like unaccountable businessmen, and see people as financial assets. If UCL won't share their rent profit projections without being called out in the national press, if they have to be embarrassed into consultations or into offering a better deal, they're not fulfilling their duty to their students. No one should have to force them into being accountable; this should be a decision they make freely with the students' interests at heart - if there's one thing my case can achieve, I hope it's the beginnings of a more democratic and considerate university.

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