Backlash against students as new term opens

This morning The Times has this report which sets the severity of the sentences handed down by the Liverpool University  Board of Discipline in the national context of similar events at other universities:

At the start of the university term this week, the tenth since Britain’s first sit-in, student leaders are asking whether the anti-student backlash has at last started in earnest. Several incidents last week suggested that society and universities have started to respond more toughly to student disturbances:

  1. The Liverpool decision to expel a student and suspend nine others for one or two years in connection with last month’s occupation of the registry;
  2. The decision by Essex University to prosecute three students, who were subsequently sent to borstal for attempting to blow up a bank (which some student leaders represent fairly as perhaps a lenient sentence);
  3. The presence of the Home Secretary at the dinner party given by the Prime Minister for a small group of university vice-chancellors;
  4. The sending of a bill for £2,800 for damages and theft to the students’ union arising from a Kent sit-in last term;
  5. The London School of Economics’ decision to apply for the gaoling of a student from another college for entering the school in defiance of an injunction;
  6. The statement to Nottingham students by Dr. F. S. Dainton, vice-chancellor, that a sit-in is by nature unlawful, no matter how great the attempts to keep it non-violent, and that all students concerned must bear responsibility.

Perhaps the most disturbing factor for universities is that the publicity surrounding sit-ins, stimulating the demand for strong action, is making it more difficult to put across the case for the expansion of higher education over the next decade.

At government level the vice-chancellors’ difficulties are appreciated. Any advice at the Downing Street dinner party last week was given gently, I understand, and the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues while pointing to the difficulties created by sit-ins, are content to leave the vice-chancellors to deal with the situation themselves.

Mr Jack Straw, president of the National Union of Students, acknowledges the pressure on universities from education authorities and the political parties, but points out that an intransigent attitude towards reasonable reforms, or over-harsh reactions to disciplinary problems, may push moderate students into supporting extremists, left or right.

A danger seen by several vice- chancellors is that the publicity, often accompanied by absurdly over-inflated reactions in the newspapers, arising from the actions of the small group committed to violent methods, will obscure the success of British universities in avoiding really violent clashes such as those in Europe and the United States.

The view now is that it could be another difficult term, although students will be preoccupied with examinations. The number of  ‘ hawks’ among the vice-chancellors is growing and, as one of them put it, the serious danger is that universities will be panicked into over-repressive reactions to a small minority, which will alienate the majority and make the situation worse.

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Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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