Report says little

29 October 1969

Guild Gazette today reports on the publication of the Joint Statement on University reform from the NUS and the committee of Vice-Chancellors:

Report says little

The long-awaited Joint Statement on University reform, by the NUS and a committee of Vice-Chancellors, has finally been issued. If militant left-wing students expected a revolutionary document heralding a new era of student participation, they will be disappointed.

The Statement, while conceding that ”the machinery of student participation should be improved”, hedges on the more vital issues such as student consultation on course-content, teaching methods and the examination system.

Trevor Fisk, Secretary of NUS, takes pains to point out that the Statement’s fundamental purpose is to stimulate discussion”. Richard Davies, President of Guild, pointed out, however, that the dialogue proposed “has been going on at Liverpool for years”. Furthermore, “There is nothing in the Statement that is not already being implemented here.”

Thus the Statement does not go beyond welcoming “the development of joint staff-student committees – new and more effective forms with substantial student membership”. Liverpool, anticipating the negotiations between NUS and the Vice-Chancellors, has already set up departmental staff-student committees. So far, the Social Science, Engineering, and Geography departments have established such committees, and Richard Davies commented : “If no progress is made within a year, it will be up to the University, as a body, to get them set up.”

The President admitted, however, that the negotiations had been a “fair break-through in getting the Vice-Chancellors and NUS round a table. It will be individual Vice-Chancellors in those Universities where the status quo is well behind that recommended by the Statement.”

While NUS issued a statement in June, urging examinations reform, all this statement can say is that “More research and experiment on the subject of examinations are required.” Nothing radical there.

Fortunately, at Liverpool, the problem of student participation is not nearly so acute as it is at more reactionary universities. Richards Davies explained that “Negotiations are starting on the whole course-content and examinations problem.” He went on, “If Liverpool is going to gain anything from the Joint Statement and the NUS Campaign, it will be in the area of student participation. As a personal opinion, I question the right of the university to punish students for non-academic incidents”.

The Statement recommends that disciplinary issues “should be the subject of discussion between university authorities and student bodies.” Otherwise, the President declared, his overall satisfaction with student-administrative relations at Liverpool. “After all, we are one of the most autonomous universities in the country. If we want t0 have something like a bar extension, it is up to Guild and not the university”.

Gazette editorial

This term, new attempts have been made to break down the barrier which exists between the staff and students of this University. Joint Committees of staff and students have been set up in some, but still only in a few departments, to consider such questions as the nature of the courses the department is running.

This move like all other efforts to make this University really “universitas nostra” and not THEIR University  where THEY condescend to teach us what THEY think fit must be welcomed. However, anyone who thinks that the establishment of joint committees of elected representatives from the student body and members of staff will solve all the problems of relationships between the university’s 6,000 students and its teaching staff is misleading himself. The problem lies not at the level of committees on specific issues but at the level of the ordinary student and his or her day to day contact with the staff.

At the moment there are many students who do not know any member of the staff sufficiently well to speak to them in the streets let alone to talk to over lunch or coffee on any but the most formal artificial occasions. With the student population of this University expected to virtually double within the next few years no one can expect this problem to ease itself without considerable changes in the whole system. Indeed, left as it is, the alienation of students, from those who teach them, could well soon reach the position that it has in the French universities. A position which played a part in causing the students revolt in France last year.

The moral tutorial system of this university should, according to its theory, go a long way towards preventing the complete alienation of a student from the teaching staff. Yet again and again this system is shown up to be an utter farce. How can a student develop the sort of casual acquaintance with his moral tutor if he has to make a deliberate effort to go and see him?

This system is too obviously artificial to be in any way meaningful in developing contact between staff and students. The only genuine way in which students can meet the staff on equal terms is if they share the same eating and meeting facilities. A frequent occurrence at the end of an hour long lecture is for the lecturer to ask above the noise of closing notepads, “Any Questions?” A negative reply could well be taken as meaning, that despite what radicals may say, students have no wish to participate in education. Yet with the choice of a coffee, a smoke and a chat before the next lecture and a further exposition of points made in the lecture, even the most profound question is all too easily forgotten.

What is needed is for the staff to join the students in the coffee bar, or Union, between lectures where points raised in lectures or elsewhere can be discussed freely, rather than exchanged solely between students or forgotten in favour of other topics which those present know more about. The present system would seem to be designed on an almost feudal basis, with the wholly formal situation of the lecture room as the only place where undergraduates can meet staff.

The Union, and in the Arts and Law faculties, the coffee bars, are entirely populated by students. Staff House, and the various common-rooms are reserved exclusively for staff. And now, as though to keep anyone from meeting a person of a different status in the educational hierarchy, a club exclusively for postgraduates has been housed in the Alsop Building. If this University is to make any attempt to become more than the degree factory it has so often been condemned as, then the first move must be for the staff to come to the coffee bars, to mix with us in the Union, and to let us use their common-rooms, and their Staff House.

Letter to the Editor


Last issue’s article, ‘Lacking in Participation’ cannot be allowed to pass without comment. It included a sop to our figure-head, propaganda for our “denigrated politicians” and a meaningless plea to keep non-existant lines of communication open; thus seeming to support student apathy and conservative inaction.

Firstly it states that an ‘amazing number of students are not interested in their Guild’. I for one am not amazed. Guild, at present, is an unnecessarily ineffective and undemocratic bureaucracy. If, to participate, one has to become a bureaucrat – with the whole rigmarole of unending paper-work, time-wasting committee meetings and that farcical Guild Council it implies – who’s to blame the majority for opting out?

Then comes that beautiful quote from the Vice-Chancellor: ”Communications are the key to stability in Liverpool.” Just whom does HE communicate with? The average student, during his three or more years stay here, sees the Vice-Chancellor on just two occasions: the Admissions and Degree Ceremonies. And even our officers of Guild admit to knowing little about his precise functions or powers.

I respectively suggest the Vice-Chancellor re-reads his own speech. And acts upon it.

Thirdly, according to Mr Cordon, there are “quick and easy channels” through which student grievances can be communicated. Unfortunately large numbers of students have no knowledge of these channels, many not even knowing the officers of their own Guild, segregated, as they are, on the first floor of the Union.

To rectify this deplorable state of affairs, Council deemed it necessary to purchase a £30 notice-board. Where was this notice-board placed? Also on the first floor! And, at the time of writing, it, as well as that other daring innovation of a display board on the ground floor, is still empty! Yet another crass example of bureaucratic money-wasting through lack of communications.

We are then given an “actual example” of how well our communication system works. A committee of inquiry was set up to look into the July exams fiasco. But surely the basic reasons for this same fiasco was the lack of communication. Those responsible for timetables, allocating hall space etc, did not know or take the trouble to find out the numbers of students involved. Neither did they adequately communicate their decisions to the examinees.

All this is obvious. But predictably the University has to set up another committee, still further bogging down the system.

Fifthly, I object to being called “governed”. This word implies inferiority- whereas students are, or should be, an equal and integral part of a University community. An administrative body may be necessary; though more democratic and even anarchical higher education establishments have worked perfectly efficiently in the past.

But to have a dictatorship divorced from the functional aspect of University life -namely education – is surely an unnecessary anachronism. I cannot dispute that we have a large degree of autonomy at Liverpool. But I see it not as an acceptance of student’s responsibility. Rather it was a clever back-tracking manoeuvre on the part of the University Authorities, enabling them to maintain their fundamental educational issues.

In other colleges, without self-governing Unions, student revolt often erupts over comparatively minor issues, such as increases in Union meal prices. Then, after prolonged struggle, it eventually polarises on education. By conceding autonomy, by establishing numerous ineffective committees, the University successfully masks its own intransigence.

Certainly, autonomy is good. But real student co-operative power in running the University is far more important. Nor am I impressed by the new staff-student committee set up to look into educational problems. No doubt the student part will consist of those same “denigrated politicians”. I have nothing against them personally –  in fact a lot of sympathy. Because I believe however hard they try to be representative, to work efficiently and to gain concrete reforms they are doomed to failure. Our bureaucratic system has proved itself over and over again incapable of achieving anything of importance.

Guild Council – which by our constitution must ultimately make or ratify all decisions – is a farce. This fact has become the staple joke of the Union, in that great British tradition of laughing at ourselves. However this laughter serves to gloss over Council’s inherent disabilities and helps prevent any real change. An unbiased observer at any Council meeting would come away appalled at our feeble, incoherent efforts at self-government.

The continual wrangling over petty issues; the in-jokes; the over-acted, self-righteous appeals; the politicking and spiteful asides that ruin efforts towards cooperation; the persistent points of order and biased chairmanship that suffocate the all too infrequent important debates. And even if something vital is decided, so little seeps back to the mass of students that positive action is impossible.

These are our great ‘channels of communications’! But is there any alternative? The Latey Report on Age of Majority considered that young people, or any people for that matter, cannot be expected to act “responsibly” unless and until they are given some responsibility. Votes and full legal rights at 18 are recognised as only superficial stop-gap measures. Perhaps Judith Hart’s new post in the Government will produce the the more fundamental and urgent reforms much needed at the national level.

Similarly Liverpool students cannot be expected to act at all- to take a real interest in their Guild or to positively participate in their education- unless and until they are given some power over their own affairs. The idea of a system of mass meetings–whereby the whole student body collectively has the power in Guild – has often arisen.

But, without proper discussion or research, it is usually unceremoniously shelved. Certainly such a system works well in other Unions. Here it is derided irrationally as unpractical and inefficient.

Staff-student communications will not be improved, nor lasting educational reforms achieved through closed committee meetings of elitist sections of our at present divided community. It can only come through continuous rank-and-file discussion and debate.

Firstly Guild could conduct a survey of all teaching staff to find out their ideas on education and degree of satisfaction with our present system. Do they think examinations are a fair means of testing knowledge, or would they prefer to follow York by experimenting in different methods? Which teaching methods do they consider most effective? Are they satisfied with the present specialisation in curricula, or would they prefer students to have a free hand in their search for knowledge? Would they like to see a separation of the research and teaching functions of lecturers? Would they find a course of instruction in lecturing useful?

Having prepared the ground, a weekly seminar on education could be included in everyone’s timetable. Or perhaps some time given over at the end of certain lectures. Just two ideas of a way to start a mass dialogue between students and staff on education.

We are here for three or more years. Whether we waste our time or not is, in the last instance, up to us. We must individually decide whether to try to improve the education system, for the benefit of ourselves and those who follow, or apathetically accept all its hypocrisies.

But at least Guild can give us a chance to make this choice. If it cannot, it has failed on the most important issue facing us and must be scrapped as it now stands and drastically reformed. If it can, and general apathy is proved, then it must concentrate on removing this apathy. But if a dialogue is started, if students are found to be interested in their education and staff interested in their students, then this is the first step towards University reform.

Then we can begin to act as a co-operative higher education establishment. Then Liverpool University might become a bit more than just a degree-factory.

Yours faithfully,

Oliver Swingler, 2nd Year Social Studies.


Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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