Provost Question Time: Bowing out on our pound?

Provost Question Time: Bowing out on our pound?

Claude Lynch thinks over the events of the Student Union’s Provost Question Time.

“I’m not even in the top 10 chancellors…”

For all my worldly good, I’ve never really understood university administration. Layer upon layer of staff structures, a personal tutor, a transition mentor, a programme administrator too many. People who do nothing, people who do everything, staff who are part of the Union and staff who aren’t. It’s more complex than train tickets and council tax put together. It’s what the rockstar anthropologist David Graeber might be inclined to call a case of “bullsh*t jobs”. But at least we understand the role of Provost. The proverbial king amongst men, head of the UCL Council and ultimate arbiter of all matters academic. A powerful role indeed. But for what purpose? And why do we only get 45 minutes to find out?

The Union organises one of these all-student meetings about once a term, and they rightfully include a Provost Question Time: put Michael Arthur on the spot in Logan Hall and let people throw questions at him. 45 minutes is an artful time constraint; just enough to start emotions bubbling over, the disgruntled eyes peering through rows of apathy. What about mental health? What about salaries? What about the streams and streams of debt? It’s easy to criticise this stuff, but it’s even easier – remarkably easy, in fact – to stand apart. I think most UCL students just look at the Provost, whoever it is, whether it’s Michael Arthur or not, and wonder with melancholy about whether anyone holding that post could ever do it justice. Histories of eugenics and crumbling student halls can’t be saved by one man, but at least we could expect some sincerity.

Last night, we didn’t get any. What we did get, however, was a surprise notice: Michael Arthur is apparently coming to the “end of his term”. The nonchalance with which this news was announced – barely spoken out loud and left in the corner of a pamphlet – speaks to a desire to keep it (mostly) under wraps. Arthur’s departure would be as subtle as his appearance, and as subtle as his answers. Enough preamble; you can decide for yourself.

“What do you do day-to-day to earn your £380,000 annual salary?” A perfectly reasonable question; it’s important the student body knows why their Provost is being paid about as much as a mid-level finance executive. But Arthur’s response, shockingly, came down to patronising the audience: “I would like to introduce you to the concept of net profit”. Arthur argues his fundraising power is enough to defend his vast income, rather than what he gives back to students. His networking skills, paying for construction projects we never stay long enough to see finished, is his great service to us – while we receive a paltry 3 extra counsellors on our mental health services and platitudes for our other campaigns for student wellbeing. That there are 10 or more university heads getting paid more than him is in no way testament to his value for money.

“Why is UCL still invested in fossil fuels?” To this, Arthur’s answer is more complex. A series of subcommittees students have never heard of, making choices they could supposedly never hope to understand, shaping sustainability policy and aiming to invest in “low-carbon” technologies in the future, but not informing students of any substantive change. Because there isn’t any; UCL still invests £1.3 million in companies like Shell, whose central business model is hardly “low-carbon”.

The most egregious moment was left until the end. A campaigner from London Students for Yemen asked Arthur if he was aware that arms manufacturers BAE systems were listed as the prime sponsor of the Centre for Ethics and Law at UCL. It would seem prudent for the Provost to know if a company actively fuelling violence in conflict-prone parts of the world was helping to fund a UCL department. Yet, the Provost replied with little tact: “I said no bullsh*t, and I wasn’t aware of this”. Michael Arthur was unilaterally unaware that he had allowed a morally ambiguous arms manufacturer to fund studies at UCL; all this, on top of other conflicting business interests that compromise the UCL Council on an ongoing basis.

The Provost’s departure provoked an odd mood in the room, then a muted round of applause. The perfect analogy for his tenure, marked by a series of ambivalent commitments and dissatisfactions. But we congratulate him anyway. Maybe the revolving door will send us someone better to replace him; or maybe we should learn expect a little more.

It sounds surreal to say it, but we could aspire to a university where the Provost is accountable to their academics, instead of the other way around. We could aspire to a university where financial interests don’t make for a majority on the UCL Council at every meeting. We could aspire to a system that’s more transparent for students and professors alike, in Michael Arthur’s wake. Would that be so crazy?