Medics losing their identities: Imperial sets out to sell historic medical school building

Medics losing their identities: Imperial sets out to sell historic medical school building

‘I don’t want to go to Mary’s, but I bloody well want the option of not going.’

Now stop me if you have heard this one before. A London Russell Group university decides to change something about its faculty of Medicine. The change is sudden and damages the historic identity of the constituent medical colleges. These colleges dating back much further than them; as well as showing little concern for the current community and culture so important to its medical students.

But the senior management of the college thinks this change makes the most business sense. The top brass at the medical school are too blinded by the numbers and too toothless to fight back. Meanwhile, the students and alumni have not been consulted. The community is in uproar. Not that the senior management cares.

It is a tale as old as the mergers. Not for the first time over the past couple of decades (not even the past couple of years, nor even months), a London-based medical school is having its identity and community ripped apart by its parent university.

Not too long ago, it was Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry struggling to defend its identity, by resisting changes to its logo, from the ravages of Queen Mary University of London’s hare-brained branding exercise. We fought bravely, but we lost. Now it is the Imperial College School of Medicine’s turn to fight, with the battlefield located at the St Mary’s Medical School Building. They are fighting bravely, but it is a losing battle.

On the 25th of July 2019, Imperial College London announced it would be selling the St Mary’s Medical School Building. This will involve moving 400 academic and administrative staff and 200 postgraduate students to Imperial’s fast-growing White City Campus, a process which will take five years (although one can only imagine the amount of slippage which will delay an undertaking as substantial as this).

Originally the site of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, founded in 1854, the College is now willingly selling off its only permanent presence at its St Mary’s Campus. Students will of course still be going to the hospital for their clinical rotations. But they will no longer have access to the great student facilities while there. No Fleming Library for post-placement studying, no common room to take a break, no sports facilities where students can exercise their gym memberships.

In its reaction, the student body is understandably frustrated at the decision. Frustration would be an understatement. A Facebook page called Save Our St Mary’s (reminiscent of the Save Our BL campaign run at Barts and The London [BL], but with a more pleasing SOS acronym) has attracted over 1100 likes, and the accompanying petition at Change.org has almost reached a phenomenal 5000 signatures at time of writing.

It is telling that Imperial College faces this threat when it, of all the London medical schools (known collectively as the United Hospitals), seems to have preserved the least of its individuality. St George’s never had to worry about losing its name (after all, who would want to merge with it?), Barts and The London still drowns out any mention of Queen Mary (even if the latter is being screamed ever more incessantly in our direction), GKT is used somewhat interchangeably with King’s, and RUMS still gets chanted on the odd sporting field.

But the names of St Mary’s, Charing Cross and Westminster barely get a whisper. It is perhaps reflective of the relative status and wealth of the medical colleges to their parent institutions at the time of the merger, that Imperial so firmly got its own way (compared to Queen Mary, at least). And also, as much as St Mary’s gets to claim Sir Alexander Fleming among its many distinguished alumni, it has to try its best to forget the likes of Andrew Wakefield…

But while Imperial College School of Medicine [ICSM] may have lost more of its name and even identity during the great London medical mergers of the 1990’s, it never lost its community. The ICSM Students’ Union remains as a largely autonomous constituent union of the wider Imperial College Union, led by its own full-time sabbatical officer. The ICSMSU supports its community of medical students across the Charing Cross, South Kensington, and St Mary’s Campuses. It is a tight-knit community. Yet now, the College wishes to take an axe to this by tearing asunder the beating heart of the St Mary’s Campus, the Medical School Building.

In its defence, the College has explained the decision as one made “to capitalise upon the critical mass of scientific and clinical academic expertise that is growing around the Hammersmith/White City Campus in West London and to improve the learning and research environments for the whole Faculty of Medicine community.” The College will also ensure all “net proceeds of a sale” are reinvested in the Faculty of Medicine.

On the face of it, investment is always good. Compare this to Queen Mary where the senior management has the audacity to wish to kill off Barts and The London while simultaneously offering minimal investment (from its admittedly cash-strapped coffers) towards the facilities of some of its most reputable teaching courses. Not so, it seems, at Imperial. Although it is no secret that they are quite well-to-do, and they have indeed already invested at the Charing Cross Campus in recent times.

So, if it the investment is coming, what is the actual issue here? Must we as the medical community always clamour on about safeguarding our heritage and protecting our thriving medical family in order to prevent any change from happening? Both are fair arguments but at times, one has to reluctantly bid farewell to the past, make changes to allow for even better things to come. That was the case with the mergers in the first place.

But what is important here is that yet again, the key stakeholders, students, are being callously cast aside. Imperial College reassures everyone that “starting in the Autumn there will be opportunities to share ideas for preserving the history and culture of our medical school and to discuss plans to improve existing facilities and invest in new ones” and that there will be time “for a thoughtful transition that will be developed in consultation with students, staff, alumni and other important stakeholders.” Yet students and representatives should have been involved in such discussions BEFORE, as well as after, any such decision was taken.

It is the students of the Save our St Mary’s campaign who put it best: “St Mary’s Hospital Medical School predates Imperial College London by 50 years – they have no place to make decisions of this magnitude and sell off whatever they like with no attempt to speak to students who use the building before making a public statement.”

There may well have been a compromise students were happy to make. The senior management at Imperial decided they did not need to listen. And if we let them get away with it now, what will they try to get away with next?

So, yes, this call at Imperial may be being made as a cold, calculated business decision, rather than out of some misguided, blind hatred, as was the case at Queen Mary. But that does not change the problem at the root of the issue: the university management just do not listen to students. At least, not outside of NSS season.

At least Queen Mary had the guts to change the Barts and The London logo in front of our faces. At Imperial, they waited until everyone had gone away for the summer and did it behind the backs of students.

And it is not just medical students to whom these London ‘parent’ universities show no respect, but alumni too. Universities maintain good relations with their alumni, seemingly in order to bleed them dry through securing gifts of donations. And when they have parted them from their money, the universities are happy to toss aside the hollowed carcasses of their medical alumni. It is why one of my key goals as the Barts and The London Alumni Officer will be to ensure any funding from BL alumni has some benefit for BL students, with its availability intrinsically tied towards a maintained identity.

After all, it is no surprise that it is all about money. Why else would Imperial sell off such valuable and historic land? “St Mary’s Hospital will remain an important center for delivering clinical undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research”, claims the College, just without the required cost of operating a campus.

It makes some logistical sense to sell the land and bring researchers onto one site. But it similarly makes sense to keep student spaces open, both given the size of Imperial and because it continues to send students to St Mary’s Hospital on clinical rotations (after all, the latter decision is of financial benefit to the university due to its relationship with the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust).

And while it may make logistical and financial sense for Imperial to transfer as many of their operations as they can to White City, one wonders what the four hundred relocated staff make of the decision. Were they even consulted? Do the academics agree with their research base being moved? Even the Tomlinson Report, the 1992 report into medical education and research in London, the basis of the great London medical mergers of the 1990’s, recommended moving “laboratories and other facilities for clinical research into selected hospitals” (while being close to a science base), rather than away from them.

As for the investment promised to the Faculty of Medicine, this will likely not be seen for many years. Certainly, an entire generation of medical students will miss out on the facilities at St Mary’s Medical School Building, without any meaningful substitute.

Meanwhile, the cynics claim that recent investments in Charing Cross have already been done and that the sale of the Medical School Building will only recoup the cost of these improvements, rather than go towards any future developments.

It is not the first time medical school land has been sold off with the university not bothered with its upkeep but rather interested in paying off their own debts; the Barts and The London Sailing Club will recall the tale of Anchor Cottage.

And the promised preservation of the history and culture? One only has to look towards history to know that is an empty promise. They promised that Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry would keep its heritage. It did, but it got silently shunted off to museums where no students ever see it, and where no students are inspired to follow in the footsteps of the countless great alumni of the United Hospitals.

How many students even know, let alone have seen, that Barts and The London possess the bat autographed by one of its most famous Barts alumni, W G Grace (to whom, incidentally, Westminster Hospital have some claim too), one of the greatest ever cricketers? Probably fewer than the number of consecutive UH wins recently managed by the Royal Hospitals Cricket Club. One dreads to think where the stopwatch of Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile, will end up after the St Mary’s Hospital Medical School Building is sold off.

So what can be done now? It is a decision worth protesting. It is a petition worth signing. Because what will be the next harmful decision taken by our universities’ senior management, without consulting our students? What will they take next? More study spaces? More student facilities? Our halls of residences? Funding for our clubs and societies?

The students of the Save Our St Mary’s campaign have rather sensibly requested delaying the decision on the sale of the St Mary’s Medical School Building and for the College to commit to “a meeting with representatives from College, the Faculty of Medicine, student representatives, the Alumni Association & St Mary’s Hospital Association by 31st August 2019.” A reserved and fair proposal given the state of affairs.

And it is our duty as Barts and The London medical students to support our fellow medics at Imperial with this fight to keep the decision over the future of St Mary’s Medical School Building (partially) in the hands of the students. Perhaps the Building will be sold in the end, but the student voice must be heard.

Because this is not simply about the loss of a building. The way in which the situation has so far been handled by senior management at Imperial College London, a decision taken without any input from the most important stakeholders, is an attack on the very community of students and staff at ICSM. And Barts and The London students need to get involved because we understand better than anyone else that one defends a community as a community.

It is also not inconceivable that something similar to this will happen to us very soon. We may not be as far down the road as ICSM but it is a question of when, rather than if this will happen. Which is why we must fight these changes now, or risk the College’s senior management trying even more daring stunts in the future.
Whitechapel is probably safe, but one can imagine spaces such as Dawson Hall at Charterhouse Square being put up for sale without any alternative accommodation provided to students. Even if one does not have the most vivid of imaginations, one only needs to cast one’s mind back to when Genomics England took over the ground floor.

And if we support our fellow medics, just how many voices can Imperial ignore? The failure of the Save Our BL campaign makes one pessimistically think that even reaching the suggested 5000 signatures on the petition will make little difference. But the truth is that we at BL never harnessed all of our support as best as we could. And so we lost the battle. But this is a war.

And if to defend a community, one needs to act as a community, perhaps the best way to defend ourselves, both Barts and The London and Imperial College School of Medicine, as well as the rest of the London medical schools, against the onslaught from our parent institutions on our identity and heritage, is through the formation of a group which seeks to protect the joint interests of all students and all alumni of the United Hospitals. Yes, even those from Guy’s.

Various groups exist, such as the United Hospitals Medgroup, a partnership between the student leaders of each university’s medical society. But a group with a clearer and long-term strategy is necessary, and one which can put pressure on the senior management of the universities. One imagines this would be through seeking to manage alumni funding streams. Although there is always the option at the other end of things, of plotting to tank medical school recruitment.

Of course, even that might not be enough. But there is still one ray of hope in the inevitably of the closure of St Mary’s Medical School Building. At least now when I have to say I’m a Queen Mary medic, people will no longer mistake me for being a St Mary’s Imperial student. And that just about makes up for having to call myself a QM student.

Rakin Choudhury is currently the BLSA Alumni Officer and previously was the Vice President 17-18.


Section: Barts & The London News, Opinions

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.