This morning, The Times, among several newspapers, reports prominently the sentences handed down by the Board of Discipline on the ten students charged following the occupation of Senate House. The reports highlights that the sentences are ‘the severest by a university since the start of student occupations in Britain in 1967’:
Another troubled start to the summer term in universities seems certain after the decision of Liverpool University board of discipline to expel one student and to suspend nine others who took part last month in a 12-day occupation of the Senate House.
All 10 said yesterday that they will appeal against the sentences. Six of the students were due to sit their final degree examinations,next month, and the decision, announced on Saturday, is the severest by a university since the start of student occupations in Britain in 1967. Students were not represented at the deliberations.
‘At first sight’, Mr Jack Straw, president of the National Union of Students, said yesterday,’ the decision appeared harsh. It could mobilize the mass of students who had opposed the original occupation. The N.U.S. would take the matter up with the Liverpool authorities if asked to by the students.
On different grounds, the decision has also disturbed senior politicians on both sides of the Commons. Ministers are placed in an awkward position during the run-up to a general election in which law and order will be a dominant theme, and Labour cannot appear ‘soft’ on students. The view, nevertheless, is certainly that Liverpool has acted severely. The Government has no power to intervene, but the implications will be discussed this week at the Department of Education and Science and the decision is certain to be raised at the dinner the Prime Minister is holding at Downing Street this week for university vice-chancellors.
Mrs Margaret Thatcher, Opposition spokesman on education, said yesterday that as far as Liverpool was concerned, the action was a matter for the authorities. On the general issue of ‘sit-ins, however, she raised the question of whether some change in the law of trespass was needed. The right of protest must be preserved, she told me, but there must be a query about the right of students to occupy buildings and put them out of action. The Conservative Party was ‘assessing whether within the general law of the land there was a case for the revision of the law of trespass. She emphasized that there was no question of introducing any special law for students.
University vice-chancellors have also been discussing the same question, but I understand the discussions have reached only an interim stage. So far, the official view is that there should be no change.
Several other universities are considering similar charges against students after demonstrations at the end of the spring term. Some consider that the Liverpool decision may herald a more severe approach to militant student action. One senior, but liberal, Conservative MP said yesterday that MPs had noticed that a ” wave of hysteria ” against students was building up in the country. Politicians could not overlook this and it was even affecting discussion of the modest claim by the NUS for higher grants.
Universities certainly recognize that they are under pressure to act firmly against student demonstrations, especially if they are to stop local education authorities from acting independently by withdrawing the grants of disciplined students, adding further impetus to the law and order campaign. The decision of Liverpool shows the strength of the pressure.