Who cares about Guild?

29 October 1968

This letter, in this week’s Guild Gazette, is a reply to the article by Gerry Cordon in the last issue. It focusses on key issues in the debate about staff-student communication and student participation in university governance current at the moment:

Sir,

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,  separated as they are on the first floor of the Union.

grievances can be communicated.

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 art 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 have my 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.

Such is the great interest in student’s welfare that any survey of Guild Councillors of their departments is lucky to get a 50 per cent response – even after many months and three reminders! 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 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, on involving students,  and  not just make   derogatory   remarks. 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 cooperative  higher education establishment.

Then Liverpool University might become a bit more than just a degree-factory.

Yours faithfully, Oliver Swingler, 2nd Year Social Studies.

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Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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