Piggy banks or cash cows? UCL’s financial failure

I’ve always hated the phrase “cash cows”. A brutish phrase and most often falsely applied to foreign students at British universities, whose fees are higher than those for domestic students as they are not part of the state which subsidises those fees.

However, I am a firm believer in contracts, and unfortunately our alma mater, UCL, has broken several contracts it has made with me, both implicit and explicit. My anger is rising as quickly as my pockets are depleting. I fear I may be a dreaded “cash cow”; something is certainly sucking me dry.

Firstly, let me explain my situation. I am a third-year European Social and Political Studies student, currently studying in Milan on my year abroad. You may have heard from fourth year students that years abroad aren’t necessarily what they cracked up to be, with foreign universities often being poor academic equivalents to UCL, and bureaucracy overseas being painfully obtrusive [one friend of mine had no lectures in France for half a term, due to strikes so bad that they led to lecturers barricading other staff in the building and holding them ransom until they got a pay rise]. Thankfully, UCL is beginning to make years abroad accessible to all, using its international outlook as “London’s Global University” and bringing all of the things which foreign universities do worse than they do back here.

[Tweet “@Hels1994: UCL’s self-promotion budget could be better spent on students without money for food”]

The first contract which UCL has broken with hundreds of its students this year is with regards to its Erasmus funding. Students from across the EU going to study in another EU country were allotted a grant of roughly €400 a month to help with the added costs which come with studying abroad. This is meant to be paid in two instalments, one larger sum on arrival in the host country and one smaller sum at the start of the second term.

Unfortunately, UCL is rather befuddled with the whole thing and can’t seem to work out how to divvy up the money it has (or will have – they are too elusive to pin anything concrete on) between the students it has sent abroad. Students sent abroad had been away for almost two months when they were finally contacted about it, with the news that their grants are 33% lower than UCL had advertised them being before the summer. Yet instead of saying outright that they had messed things up and would have to reduce the grants, they have blamed problems variously on the EU, Erasmus or the British Council, whilst using shady, underhand maths to disguise the reduction in the grant, by reducing the length of time which students are supposedly studying abroad so maintaining that students will still receive €400 a month. They are now only funding students for 5.4 months of their supposed 12 month stay. This would mean that students would be coming home after their years abroad in February.

Part of the new 'Octagon' on which UCL spent some of its ?77m construction budget last year.
Part of the new ‘Octagon’, on which UCL spent some of its £77m construction budget last year.


Us UCL students looked on with envy as our foreign classmates had money to spend on overpriced cocktails and trips to the Alps. The galling part came when our compatriots started to get money to splash around on Rioja too. Grants to many other British universities have already been made, the hold-up for our money seems to relate to the amount of time that UCL needed to dedicate to working out the most plausible way to trick their students with dirty tricks. If UCL students are so bright, I doubt anyone has been tricked by administrators trying to feign that we are still receiving the promised amount of money.

Essentially, UCL has fudged its accounts and sent too many students abroad; a mistake is entirely of their own making. However, instead of topping up the grants with money which would be a drop in the ocean compared to what they have, they have decided to attempt to deceive their students out of thinking there was ever a problem in the first place.

Fighting on the Home Front: room bookings

The 2161 more students UCL has admitted this year and frequent allocation of our rooms to random third parties means the availability of rooms for student events has declined severely over the last two years. For example, when I joined in 2012, Debating Society was able to book the Gustav Tuck Lecture Theatre out for the whole year on Mondays; this year many societies are unable to book rooms big enough for their events. This means societies? budgets are being used to secure room bookings off campus, incurring a lot more effort for all concerned, whilst UCL is using our rooms to raise funds to spend on its overseas projects [the author would appreciate an explanation as to how on Earth UCL building two more universities in Australia and Qatar in any way benefitted students at the real UCL?]. This happens whilst the college simultaneously cuts down the number of rooms it has in the first place by turning some of the few nice rooms we have, like the Old Refectory, into grotty overpriced cafes. No more dinners, no more balls, no more student life.

Conclusions: the state of the university

The UCL I joined in 2012 and agreed to pay £9,000 a year for is certainly not the same UCL it is now, another contract I see broken.

I understand that UCL may be trying to fund sabbaticals for its Nobel Prize winners or build more campuses overseas, but what really is the point? What is the point if your student satisfaction puts you 68th in the UK and you find it more and more difficult to recruit bright students as they are turned off by the brutal and impersonal atmosphere, shoddy bureaucracy and rapidly declining student life? Instead of trying to compete with UK universities for more students, they have given up and started afresh with new student markets overseas. Students should be more than funding bases for ambitious building projects and helping professors pursue personal interests.

Michael "The Provost" Arthur
Michael “The Provost” Arthur

The conclusions I feel we must draw from this are radical. As UCL can only be bothered to fund my year abroad until February, I am seriously considering boycotting it after February. I have already had to apply for the hardship grant, despite my family being able to help me out a little. I fear greatly for students whose families have been less able to help them out.

I cannot go on with my income slashed and the costs of relocating abroad so high. Throughout my degree I have considered leaving multiple times and going somewhere else, unable to cope with the impersonal system making me no more than a number and the sky-high cost for that privilege. All that seems to keep me sticking with UCL is the supposed “job prospects” which a Loxbridge degree gives you. I wonder for how much longer UCL will continue to create world-class graduates from every background until it’s turned into a finishing school for students with wealthy parents.

I worry for the future of UCL, which seems ruled by out of touch authorities and ineffective bureaucracy. I bumped into the Provost last term, a complete stranger to me, who after I introduced myself as “Helen”, he shook my hand and said “Hello, I’m the Provost”, not “I’m Michael”, driving home my inferiority to him.

More broadly, bureaucratic problems at all British universities seem to be growing. Transparency is a distant dream. The worry in writing any article about this is that many members of the UCL staff boast that the university’s press team is “the best of the best”. I sit and wait to be torn to shreds by this expensive service, whose funding could surely be diverted a lot better towards students without money for food.

The greatest personal conclusion I draw from this: next time I’ll reapply for Durham.

You can sign our petition to support bring UCL to account over Erasmus funding below: [yawpp-form-1]

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