Several prominent journalists, including The Independent‘s Editor-in-chief Amol Rajan, have signed an open letter criticising the decision of the University of London to stop funding the London Student newspaper as “an affront to free thought”.

The open letter, published in The Guardian, has been signed by London Student alumni; academic staff at University of London colleges and a number of professional journalists.

London Student is the student newspaper of the University of London Union (ULU), and has existed in its current form since 1979. The university has had a student-run newspaper, funded by the University, since the 1920s.

The newspaper claims to be the largest in Europe, with over 12,000 editions of the newspaper printed each fortnight during term time although the Norwegian student newspaper Universitas also makes this claim and has a circulation of 17,000 copies.

The letter is signed by 17 former editors of the newspaper, as well as academic staff from various constituent colleges of the University of London and Imperial College London, which became independent from the University of London in 2007.

The letter was also signed by professional journalists, including Aditya Chakrabortty, Senior economics commentator at The Guardian, Alexi Duggins, Editor-at-large of Time Out, Henry Langston, Editor of Vice News UK, Laurie Penny, author and contributing editor at the New Statesman, and The Independent‘s Rajan.

In the open letter, it is claimed that “there are political overtones to the university’s abrupt planned closure of the newspaper”. The letter also adds that, “London Student is one of the few student-led outlets where students can learn and exercise the critical skills they will need to challenge orthodoxy and power; shutting it down is an affront to free and radical thought on campuses, and is an insult to future generations of students.”

The letter ends by demanding that university management “reconsider the scrapping of such an important and valued institution”.

The newspaper will ceased to be funded by the University of London at the end of this year, as part of the restructuring of ULU, which is having its sabbatical officer positions abolished and is transferring it services and facilities to a ‘student centre’, to be run by the University. 

The decision to close ULU came as a result of a review of the federal students’ union undertaken by the University last year, following concerns raised by a number of College Students’ Unions about ULU. The report concluded that ULU had largely outlived its usefulness. However, funding for London Student, which is published by ULU, was not discussed in the report.

Following the decision to close ULU, University of London Union president Michael Chessum requested that university managers provide a one-off payment of £54,000 spread across the university’s 19 constituent colleges, so that the newspaper would have time to secure alternative backing.

In a meeting last week, the Vice Chancellors of Colleges turned down the request for funding, with the final decision going to a meeting of the University Trustees on 16 July.

The newspaper has previously published stories that have been picked up by national newspapers. In 2006, London Student published a story exposing that the Mail on Sunday had offered student reporters money to record meetings of student Islamic societies, following the 7 July 2005 London Bombings. The paper also revealed that the leaving party of UCL’s provost Malcolm Grant had cost the college more than £17,000.

London Student also experienced controversy, in 2013, when its annual election for editor was rerun, following complaints that the newspaper had been bias in its coverage of the election. The controversy centred on a ‘Random Facts’ section of the newspaper’s ‘Election Special’, which described one of the candidates, Katie Lathan, who was a deputy editor of the London Student at the time, as possessing “over 20 nominations from teams and societies across the University of London”. Meanwhile, another candidate, Oscar Webb, was described as never having “been involved with London Student.” Webb was eventually elected editor unopposed in the rerun of the election, after Lathan withdrew.

In a statement, President of ULU Michael Chessum, said, “The University of London is engaged in an act of vandalism against organisations and activities that have taken students decades to build up. It costs peanuts to fund London Student, and it is profoundly sad that Vice Chancellors will not put forward funding for a vital source of community, news and scrutiny – but then of course, why would they?”

Oscar Webb, the current London Student Editor, said, “London Student has been a necessary and valuable asset to the University for the past 60 years. As we’ve seen recently with the examples of the Garden Halls and some of the special collections, the current management at UoL seem intent on selling-off this legacy.”

Max Needham, a student at Royal Holloway, commented, “To be honest, I don’t think many ordinary students will miss it. Most of the colleges have great newspapers anyway, which are more relevant to those who read them. At Royal Holloway we have The Founder and The Orbital, which have always been far more interesting than the London Student with their focus on events more local to our community. They often cover the big University of London stories anyway.”

Journalism up and down the country is facing a tsunami of hurdles: from evermore repressive regimes shutting down free speech to the income sources being cut off as a result of the pandemic.

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