The editorial in the Times Educational Supplement this week takes a position on whether the Liverpool sentences are evidence of a ‘backlash to student revolt’:
Examination pressures and the distractions offered by the “Stop the Seventy Tour” campaign may take some of the wind out of the sails of student militants this term, but few of those in authority in universities are prepared to stake much money on it.
Most newspapers and some politicians have already chosen 1970 as the year of the backlash to student revolt. The Conservative Party’s growing interest in law and order as an election issue, and recent incidents inside the universities – including the expuklsion of one Liverpool student and the suspension of several others which Mr Jack Straw, the president of the NUS, with grotesque exaggeration described as “amounting to hanging people for sheep-stealing” – have tended to reinforce this widely accepted view. […]
According to this particular version of the truth the “doves” among the vice-chancellors…have been overriden by the “hawks” who are now demanding that universities adopt a more repressive policy.
In fact it would be difficult to label most vice-chancellors as either “hawks” or “doves” – with a few exceptions at each end of the spectrum. Of course, many vice-chancellors, including Mr Alan Bullock at Oxford, have found that their liberal views have been severely strained by the antics of the radicals. Dr Dainton of Nottingham, for instance, has issued a sober warning that sit-ins are “unlawful and irregular, no matter how great the efforts to keep them non-violent or to minimize damage”. He has also refused to promise that no disciplinary action will be taken against those involved in the sit-in last term. Kent University authorities have asked the students’ union to pay a bill of almost £3,000 for damage allegedly done during the sit-in there. Three Essex students have been sent to Borstal for attempting to set fire to a bank on the university campus.
Many people will think these university responses are perfectly reasonable: certainly , the coincidence of these three events and the expulsions and suspensions at Liverpool is no evidence of a plot, or even of a concerted policy. Warwick has decided to take no action against students who broke into the administrative offices and stole the original controversial files. But many people in the universities do believe that the time may have come to clarify the ground rules for student action. Uncertainty about student discipline is more likely to cause trouble than reasonable clarity.
In most universities the present aim is more limited. University authorities, having reviewed their disciplinary procedures, have to assert their right to punish students who destroy the university property, to discourage sit-ins and other demonstrations that experience has shown are likely to lead to damage to property and significant disruption of the ordinary life of the university, and to establish that simply because a criminal act takes place in the context of student revolt, this does not diminish the rigour of the law. If they fail to do this they will have abdicated. But they do not want to end the dialogue with students or to cut the channels of communication that have been established in the past two years.
Last term’s political files campaign was only a symptom of a deeper malaise which remains and is only indirectly a university phenomenon. […]