CAITLIN LAW explains what’s been happening at the IOE Bar and why she started a petition to save it. 

In December 2014 UCL merged with the Institute Of Education (IOE), making UCL the biggest higher education institution in London. UCL management emphasised new opportunities to pool the academic expertise of the two institutions, but little was done to safeguard the social identity, community and history of the IOE. Although officially labelled a merger, this alliance might more appropriately be dubbed an absorption. While a UCL student is unlikely to have felt any impact of the partnership, staff and students at the IOE have been obliged to adapt to new management systems and restricted independence, and now a loss of control over their main social space.

I started working at the IOE Bar less than a year after the merger, as part of the first round of student employees hired from UCL. I soon sensed the atmosphere of unanimous dislike towards UCL – perceived as a distant tyrant forcing unneeded change in a community with its own ways of operating. The IOE bar is treasured by its regulars for its quirks: it will never fit the same model as Phineas and the rest of UCL’s bar franchises, and all intervention felt like an attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.

The Institute Bar now falls under the umbrella of UCLU, who in April this year quietly made plans to sell the space to UCL, who in turn proposed to move the bar downstairs into our cramped cellar space. This news was received at the IOE as a long-anticipated dagger to the chest. Already the IOE Student Union (IOESU) had seen many long-term employees abruptly brought under the centralised and less flexible employment structures used on UCL’s main campus with the merger, as well as a change to less efficient till systems, and cuts in pay.

To rub more salt in the wound, the teaching spaces due to replace the much-loved bar seem to be primarily a means of compensating for the lack of resources on UCL’s own Main Campus — needed because of the long-term planning failures of UCL management. The plans also allow for some “decant/swing space to facilitate the later phases”. This, I understand, roughly translates as “decant/swing space to hire out as a conference venue for private businesses”.

On 28th April before a busy Friday night shift I drew up a petition on change.org protesting these plans and their failure to prioritise the best interests of the IOE. By the end of the night we had reached 100 signatures by spreading the word to customers throughout the evening, and the petition now stands at over 2,200 supporters thanks to the continued efforts of all the bar staff, our loyal regulars and our student representatives at UCLU.

The campaign has acted as a reminder that The Institute Bar is loved by all – it is far more than a place for students to get drunk on a budget. The bar is ultimately there to fulfil a service to students and the academic community, and those who run it understand that these people are best served by a space that enables them to meet other likeminded people from all walks of life. The importance of the bar’s history is evidenced in the overwhelming number of heartfelt comments left on the petition page. One comment from Rob Rosenthal, president of the IOESU from 1984-5, recalls his time at the bar during the miners’ strike when voluntary donations were added to drinks. Rob writes, “I met Basil Bernstein amongst others there. It is a piece of history, a designated national treasure.”

Many of those commenting share an acrimonious view of UCL, and lament its influence over the IOE. Eleanor Dewar writes, “As a student of the IOE I have never felt welcome by UCL and this is another example of their disdain for those of us studying and working at IOE.” This sentiment is a recurring theme among IOE students, who have been repeatedly left out in the cold by UCL management’s tendency to treat their valued facilities and staff as disposable and replaceable.

The issue also extends beyond the bar to the canteen and other catering facilities at the IOE. Just the other day, as I was opening the bar, a member of IOE catering staff came over to ask, “Are they shutting you down too?” The IOE’s contract with Aramark, the subcontractor who holds exclusive rights to sell food in the canteen area, has been hanging by a thread since May when UCL’s redevelopment plans were announced. Although the contract was initially extended as a response to student protest over the closures, Aramark then decided that the operation was no longer profitable, and the canteen has now closed. It is unclear to what extent the redundancies that followed, for a number of full-time non-student workers, are a direct result of UCL’s plans. Yet it is hard to imagine that Aramark’s decision was not influenced by the knowledge that the canteen was soon to be closed anyway, and replaced by UCL teaching rooms.

Following the response to our petition to save the Institute Bar, UCL management reluctantly initiated a student consultation period. During this time UCL’s “masterplan” for the IOE has been exhibited on the wall of a seminar room at the back of the bar – a room usually locked during our busiest hours. Anyone who did manage to sneak a glance at the plans was invited to offer feedback on the proposed changes, provided they had a UCL student number. This measure excluded lecturers and alumni at the IOE, and SOAS and Birkbeck students who frequent the bar.

The masterplan itself shows little departure from UCL’s earlier unpopular scheme, merely dressing up the same ideas with a sketchy artist’s impression and the promise of a temporary marquee bar to stand in while the work is carried out. Yet there are no plans for how a “marquee bar” would be licensed, where stock would be stored, whether there would be a kitchen, or how the marquee would endure the winter months. The masterplan also takes the creative license to rename the multi-faith prayer room as a “quiet contemplation room”, in an attempt to soften the blow that there are no concrete plans to replace this important religious facility.

This move is exemplary of UCL’s persistently slippery approach to managing the IOE. Their concern has been to manipulate the consultation process in order to gain approval for their pre-existing plans, rather than to personally visit the bar and appreciate how the same money could be invested into renovation of the current facilities. Following the consultation process there is still minimal clarity regarding the future of the IOE bar and other facilities, (with the latest rumours claiming that the bar is now to be moved to a larger space upstairs on level 2). Meanwhile, staff are still yet to hear any official news from UCL management concerning the status of our jobs and the jobs of those working elsewhere in the union.

It is as of yet unclear what the outcome of our campaign will be, but irrespective of this, our real victory has been the spirit and passion shown by the community at the bar. Perhaps the reason behind the success of our protest was that it finally provided people at the IOE with a legitimate, meaningful way of voicing their dissatisfaction with the UCL merger in 2014. For me personally, working at the IOE Bar has delivered so much more than I could have anticipated when I applied. I hope that if and when the bar is relocated, at the very least the people I have met here will follow it. In this sense its history can and will continue.

Find more information about the campaign to Save the Institute Bar here.

Featured image courtesy of facebook.com/savetheinstitute.

 

CORRECTIONS:

Statement by UNISON IOE Branch Representative Gyta Nicola:

“For the record UNISON, who represented the staff made redundant through the IOE SU closure, is aware that whilst Aramark were asked to keep the IOE SU canteen open beyond its eventual closure date at the end of June, this was on the basis of being told week-by-week if they could continue to do business.  This would have been even more detrimental to the staff who were to be made redundant and is a completely ludicrous manner in which to be expected to run a business.  In fairness to Aramark, they understood completely the impact on the well-being of the staff whom they reluctantly had to let go and refused on this ground to continue to offer the service.”

SAVAGE says: While UCL say that Aramark are responsible for the sudden canteen closure, this hardly seems fair on Aramark. UCL is attempting to displace blame onto their subcontractor for their own callous and poorly thought-through decisions.