Student discontents: extract from Thomas Kelly’s History of Liverpool University

For Advancement of Learning: The University of Liverpool, 1881-1981, by Thomas Kelly, is the official history of the University. In this section. Kelly discusses, critically but with some sympathy,  the ‘student discontents’ around the period of the occupation.

Kelly discusses the  ‘fierce idealism …  the passionate desire for a juster and more peaceful world order’ that underlay these discontents.

‘It was because radical leaders were able to mobilize this idealism that they achieved, for a short period, such widespread support, especially among university students. The result was a series of confrontations, sometimes bitter and violent, between students and university governing bodies’.

Pete Cresswell’s statement before the Board of Discipline is quoted as an example of this idealism, though ‘misconceived’.

Student discontents

A vast amount of literature has been generated in the attempt to find a satisfactory explanation of the widespread spirit of revolt that manifested itself, in the 196os, among the young people who had grown up in the years just after the war. The revolt seemed to be against authority, against tradition, against middle-class morality, against everything that belonged to the old regime. It made itself felt not only in Britain but throughout the western democracies, the main storm centres being the USA, France and Germany. It found expression in many different ways-long hair and ragged jeans, pop music and avant garde art, mysticism and existentialism, ‘hippies’ and ‘flower power’, sexual permissiveness, sometimes drugs. Its political leadership, when it had any, might be Socialist, Communist, Maoist, anarchist, almost anything so long as it was radical.

Of course this is a quite inadequate analysis, but it does convey, I think, something of the feeling of the older generation as they contemplated, with dismay, the behaviour of their juniors. It was more difficult to perceive the fierce idealism that often underlay these extravagances, the passionate desire for a juster and more peaceful world order. It was because radical leaders were able to mobilize this idealism that they achieved, for a short period, such widespread support, especially among university students. The result was a series of confrontations, sometimes bitter and violent, between students and university governing bodies.In France, in the summer of 1968, an alliance of students and workers seemed at one time to threaten even the existence of the Government.

The occasion of such confrontations might be either internal (eg, the lecture system, the examination system, student representation in university government) or external (eg, apartheid, racialism, nuclear tests, chemical warfare, US policy in Vietnam). Nearly always, however, the pattern was the same-marches, demonstrations, ‘sit-ins’, and the like, supported by masses of well-meaning students eager to right some supposed wrong, but organized and orchestrated by a small group of left-wing radicals less interested in righting particular wrongs than in overturning the whole system.

One of the leaders of the Liverpool sit-in in 1970 told the Board of Discipline: ‘It is my desire and my political aim to change this sort of university and this sort of system. My political goal is a university run by and for the vast majority of the people – the working class – in a society which they control, where they have for themselves the wealth which they have always produced’.

This too is an ideal, even if we believe that it completely misconceives the functions of the universities in society.

In Great Britain the first serious trouble came in 1966 at the London School of Economics. In 1968 the events in France, shown nightly on English television screens, provoked sympathetic action at Hull and half a dozen other universities. Liverpool, at this time, remained comparatively quiet, and its students were regarded as rather conservative. Perhaps this was partly because it was more scientifically oriented than most universities, for in general the leadership in these student movements came from among the students in law, politics, and sociology. At least equally important was Liverpool’s long tradition of friendly and co-operative relations between the University administration and the student leaders. Even at Liverpool, however, there were in 1969- 70 three incidents which need to be chronicled. In all of them the University Socialist Society, founded in 1968 as a left wing breakaway from the Labour Society, played a leading role in organizing student opposition.

On 15 May 1969, when Princess Alexandra visited the University to open the new Senate House and the Oliver Lodge Physics Laboratory, some 900 students demonstrated against the condition of slum tenants living in houses owned by the University within the precinct.

On this occasion there was an element of truth in the accusations made: the University was indeed a slum landlord, though an unwilling one, because as part of its development plan it was obliged to acquire slum properties and hold them until the occupants could be rehoused. The demonstration went off peacefully, and no more was heard of the matter.

The second and third incidents came in the spring of 1970, during Trevor Thomas’s first term as Vice-Chancellor. On 3o January there were protests against the proposed attendance at the Guild Dinner and Ball of Lord Salisbury, the University Chancellor, who was denounced by the Socialist Society as a supporter ofthe white minority regimes in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. About 200 students mounted a ‘sit-in’ at the Students’ Union, and Lord Salisbury, while vigorously denying the opinions attributed to him, decided not to attend.

A few days later the protesters managed to force the resignation of the Guild Executive, thus paralysing the normal machinery of Guild government. More than a month went by before fresh elections could be held, and in the meantime the way was open for a minority group to take control through the spurious democracy of ‘mass meetings’.

The climax came when on the afternoon of  9 March 1970, about 300 students occupied the Senate House, barred the doors, hoisted the red flag, and announced that they intended to prevent the functioning of the university administration’ until such time as the University authorities showed ‘a genuine willingness’ to accede to their demands. To this end they refused admission to all the administrative staff, including the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar, the latter being forcibly prevented from entering. On the first day a considerable body of students opposed to the ‘sit-in’ demonstrated outside the Senate House, and called on the occupants to leave, but they failed in an attempt to force an entry into the building.

By this time Lord Salisbury was no longer the only subject of complaint: there were allegations also of University participation in preparations for chemical and biological warfare; of University investments in South Africa; and secret University files on the political views of staff and students. At a meeting in the Students’ Union shortly before the ‘sit-in’, the Vice-Chancellor had dealt at some length with these issues, and the University Treasurer (Mr H B Chrimes) had also spoken, but these statements had been rejected by the militant leaders as unsatisfactory.

The University authorities reacted quietly, refusing to be panicked into violent repressive action. The officers excluded from Senate House took up their quarters elsewhere, and for the time being the occupying students were left alone, no attempt being made to eject them, or even interfere with their coming and going. There was no request for help from the police, no resort to the law courts. The students’ demands were ignored. On 19 March, ten days after the beginning of the occupation, and two days before the end of term, the University announced that ten students who had been identified as having taken part in the ‘sit-in’ had been summoned to appear before the University Board of Discipline. On the following day the 100 students still occupying the Senate House marched out: the occupation was ended.

As it happened, the University’s ordinance relating to discipline had recently been revised in order to ensure that all its procedures should be in accord with natural justice and that the interests of any accused students should be adequately protected. It was under this new procedure that the ten students were now charged. In due course the Board of Discipline pronounced sentence: one student was expelled from the University; seven (including the one woman student charged) were suspended for two years; two were suspended for one year. Some thought the selection often students for disciplinary action unfair, the sentences harsh. There were protests from some students and some staff, from the National Union of Students, even from some MPs. There were letters for and against in The Times. The University authorities remained unshaken. At the Board of Appeal two of the two-year suspensions were reduced to one year; the other sentences were upheld.

During the remaining years covered by this chapter, radical student opinion continued to find free expression at Guild meetings and in the Guild Gazette, and protest demonstrations were mounted from time to time on domestic issues such as hall fees and catering prices, but there was no further serious attempt to disrupt the work of the University.

Fortunately, during these years, staff and students were able to resume their former friendly relationship, and to find new opportunities for cooperation through the representation of students on University governing bodies.

The governance of the University

In spite of the comprehensive reforms embodied in the new Charter and Statutes of 1961, the Barnes-Thomas era brought further significant constitutional changes. […]

Other changes were directed to the question of student representation on University committees. Informal discussions between senior Officers and student representatives began in 1968. Up to this time student representation had been confined mainly to committees concerned with recreation and welfare, for example the Halls of Residence Committee, the Joint Union Management Committee, the Student Welfare and Accommodation Committee, and the Appointments Board. There were indeed two student representatives on Court, but there were none on Senate or Council. At most universities the position was broadly the same, but from various quarters there was now pressure for a wider measure of representation, particularly in matters relating to students’ academic work. It was after all reasonable that students who were liable to military service at 18, and were soon (1969) to have the vote at the same age, should no longer be treated as in statu pupillari but should have a share in their own destiny.

In October 1968, a Joint Statement by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the National Union of Students noted that the social situation was changing rapidly, and students were now ‘expected to bear the full responsibilities of adult life much earlier than would have been thought reasonable a generation ago’. It was, therefore, the Statement continued, ‘right and proper that the form of the academic community and the role of students within it should be correspondingly modified and modernized’ . Students could properly be consulted, for example, about teaching methods, and the content and structure of courses. At Liverpool, in fact, from November 1968, students were brought into the discussions on university teaching methods which had been initiated in the wake of the Hale Report on that subject, published in 1967. In some Departments, too, staff-student committees were already assisting in curriculum planning.

In May 1969, Senate received a request from the President of’ Guild for discussions covering a wider field, namely ‘the role which students were playing, and would play in the future, in the government, both academic and administrative, of the University’. Senate assented, a joint committee was established, and eventually in 1970 it was agreed (though not without some misgivings on the part of the more conservative members of the Senate and Council) that the students should have two representatives on Council, and nine (the President and Deputy President of Guild and one from each of the Faculties) on Senate. Four Faculty Boards also agreed to accept student representatives: in the other three cases other forms of consultation were preferred.


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