Provost faces questions at Welcome General Assembly

Provost faces questions at Welcome General Assembly

Gerard Westhoff discusses the Provost’s performance during his Q&A at the latest Welcome General Assembly

Increasing tuition fees, opposing fossil fuel divestment and a desire to learn Spanish were just some of the topics covered in an occasionally feisty student Q&A session with Provost Michael Arthur at UCLU’S Welcome General Assembly on Tuesday evening.

The Welcome General Assembly itself was inquorate, which was no surprise considering the first motion on the agenda was to approve the 2011 General Assembly’s minutes. Around 50 student attendees were present at the event, held in the UCL Institute of Education’s 1000-seat capacity Logan Hall.

The Provost began by using his opening remarks to lament his predecessor’s underinvestment in building infrastructure and to comment on UCL’s poor ranking in university league tables for student experience. He quipped on the latter: ‘The only good thing is that LSE and Kings are below us.’

When it came to taking questions from the floor there was at first a long and awkward silence, broken only by the Provost jokingly asking, ‘Are you enjoying your time at UCL?’

Former UCLU Postgraduate Students’ Officer Ben Towse, eventually broke the tension with a request for the Provost to reassure students that he won’t lobby for a fee rise. However the Provost stated that when it comes ‘balancing the books’ and ‘investing in infrastructure’ he believes that UCL’s budget is being squeezed as costs inflate, and that he would happily lobby via the Russell Group for inflation-linked fee rises. He is against linking any potential fee increases to the controversial Teaching Excellence Framework, which he regards as ‘unnecessary’.

The subject then turned to cuts to disabled student allowances, prompted by former UCLU Disabled Students’ Officer, Thines Ganeshamoorthy. The Provost indicated that he wouldn’t support the cuts and that disabled people should have the same access to the university as everyone else. But upon further questioning he revealed he didn’t know much about the issue, and when pressed, declared: ‘I stand chastised, I should and could have done more for disabled students. Do I have an excuse? You should try a day at my desk.’

No questioning of the Provost would be complete without somebody mentioning fossil fuel divestment, the main aim of a student-led movement that the Provost has openly opposed. Amongst commercial reasons, he cited how any divestment would prove controversial with the engineering department due to career links, and that he would not take the cause seriously until at least 50% of engineering students supported it.

When further queried on the ethics of investing in fossil fuel companies, the Provost sarcastically retorted, ‘If you want to talk to me about ethics, you’re part of a students’ union that sells cigarettes and they definitely kill people.’

The evening was certainly more entertaining than any previous Welcome General Assembly. But aside from a few controversial remarks and funny one-liners, did we learn much from the Provost? Perhaps not. The Provost’s focus on rehearsed buzz phrases like ‘underinvestment in infrastructure’ and ‘student experience’ suggested that he is yet to fully engage in an honest way with the student body. But by holding a Q&A and promising more of them, Professor Arthur is making an encouraging start to the new academic year.

Featured Image Credit: smuconlaw

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