In this article, published in the current issue of Tribune, Richard Davies, one of the suspended students discusses the case and predicts its outcome. He was a third year student of law at the university and was President of the Guild of Undergraduates for the year 1968/69.
Liverpool, traditionally one of Britain’s least volatile universities, seems set for its stormiest term ever. This week, when more than 6000 students return for the summer term, many will be demanding militant action over the sentences recently imposed on ten students who took part in a 12-day occupation of the university administrative block, from March 9 to 20.
The occupation, which excluded more than 100 members of the administrative staff from their offices, was in support of five demands to the university: an official disavowal of racism and a call for the resignation of the Chancellor, the Marquess of Salisbury; a public inquiry into methods of keeping data on staff and students; publication of the schedule of the £6 million worth of investments held by the university, many of which are thought to be in firms with large financial stakes in South Africa; satisfactory answers from the authorities on the questions of student records,and research undertaken by the university into chemical and biological warfare; and finally the question which promises to be the most explosive – an assurance that there would be no victimisation of anybody taking part in the occupation.
The authorities made no move to negotiate with the militant students. Instead, on March 19, they served notice of disciplinary proceedings against ten students’ charging them with ‘conduct detrimental to the discharge of the duties of the university’.
The hearings were held during the Easter vacation, in the week of April 6 to 10. The University Board of Discipline, comprising seven members of the Senate, heard the prosecution cases presented by a professional barrister, accompanied by a solicitor. The accused students could not afford the £500-plus, which would have been needed for such services, so they conducted their own defences.
On the first day of the hearings, the board overruled objections against two of its members. One was against a senior lecturer in the Department of History, who had previously signed a petition condemning the occupation; the other was against the dean of the faculty of Medicine, Professor F E Stock, on the grounds that he had been recently appointed vice chancellor of the University of Natal, South Africa.
None of the students was allowed to call any senior university official, to explain what exactly were the ‘duties’ to which their conduct was alleged to have been detrimental, In one case, the time allowed by the board to the prosecution was five hours, while the defence was eventually allotted one and three-quarter hours. In this instance, the student was several times refused the opportunity of an adjournment to seek legal advice.
All ten students were found guilty. On Saturday April 11, the board delivered its sentences. One student was expelled; seven others were suspended for two years; and the other two for one year. Five of the ten students were due to take their finals within six weeks of the hearings.
The official reason given by the university for the charging of only ten out of the 350 students who took part in the occupation was that these were the only ones which the authorities could identify. However, the written statements given by certain university employees, which were used as the basis of the prosecution, contained the names of at least ten students not charged. In addition over 180 individual ‘confessions’ have been sent to the Chancellor, T C Thomas.
Since the sentences, support for the students has been growing. Local Labour MP, Eric Heffer has described the sentences as ‘ harsh’ as did the National Union of Students’ president, Jack Straw. Many members of the university staff are shocked by the severity of the punishments, which are the toughest ever given by a British university.
The Liverpool Trades Council has expressed its solidarity with the five demands, and with the victimised students. It is expected to press for working class representation on the powerful university Council (the body which controls the finances of the university) which is dominated by local ‘big business interests’.
The students, who will be appealing, plan more militant action, as well as the more traditional approaches of contacting such bodies as the Merseyside group of Labour MPs.
Certainly, as the new term begins, the once quiet ‘nine-to-five’ routine of Britain’s original redbrick seems likely to be rudely shattered.
The House of Commons early day motion proposed by Eric Heffer, Labour MP for Walton:
“That this House while recognising the right of the Liverpool University authorities to take disciplinary action against students who act contrary to the rules of the University, and accepting that some form of disciplinary action may have been necessary as a result of the recent sit-in at the University, nevertheless strongly feels that the disciplinary measures taken of expulsion in one case and suspension in others was harsh under the circumstances, and is much harsher than disciplinary action taken after similar occurrences at other universities; also believes that experience in industrial affairs proves that harsh disciplinary action can lead to further trouble with serious consequences and therefore calls upon the appropriate University authorities to think again and reconsider the sentences imposed.”
Signed by 140 Members of the House of Commons