Swinging Sixties (Part II)

We return to our series looking at the birth of student politics and radicalism at York

This is the second in a series of articles about the University of York in its earliest days: the 1960s. The series is formed of extracts from York alumnus Patrick Evans’ dissertation on the University. Patrick graduated from York in 2013. Read Part One here.

In 1967 York’s then Vice-Chancellor, Lord James, was still hugely wary of increased student participation.

He’d been irritated enough to describe in his annual report that the year “has in some ways not been an easy one” due to questions of “university politics”. “There is no doubt…that all over the world students have become much more conscious of what they feel are their rights” – a development he commended in South Africa, but “in other countries, student protest is channelled into demanding a greater share in the actual running of the university, often in ways which to me seem inappropriate.” 

Derwent College in 1967

This attitude seemed to change in a matter of months. The conspicuous cause was the catering boycott of Easter term 1968. The working party of both staff and students was tasked “initially to consider what went wrong in the catering dispute” and then the wider question of student participation.

The boycott, the first use of direct action by the students against the management, had importantly occurred when student revolt was dominating the headlines.

A document was produced, detailing recommendations for changing the University’s constitution.  It was clearly a response not just to York’s situation but to the problem of student unrest that had hit universities all over Britain. It appreciated how student rights campaigns related to international issues:

“The succession of incidents which have occurred in British universities over the last two years have not arisen solely from problems internal to the universities…they seem to be symptomatic also of a growing sense of political frustration with national and international political processes…”

The report should be seen as both an acceptance of not-insignificant liberal changes and simultaneously an attempt to prevent more radical change. Conceding to their demands, James argued, would hopefully isolate the second small ‘violent’ group to whom “universities are symbols…of a society whose values they reject altogether” who presented a “real threat to all that a university stands for.”

A number of changes followed, the most high-profile of which was the abolition of the staff-student committee and its replacement with a large University Committee. Alongside these concessions was a clear rejection of any notions of student power, a desire to depoliticise university politics and importantly a restructuring of the system to limit opportunities for catering boycott style collective action. Student participation was good but neither an ‘equal or majority’ vote for students was acceptable. SRC meetings were also limited.

Students relax in the sun in 1966

Radical NUS delegates Phil Harding and Sue Tyrell unsurprisingly opposed this, writing a dissenting report, arguing it would mean a professionalisation of student politics – which was what management wanted.

James’s ideal for the University was now fundamentally challenged in a way it hadn’t been in 1967.  A writer accuses the report’s traditional view of the University of failing “to locate the university in the role it must play in the greater society of today’.”  

“The university must serve people in a real sense and not serve the needs of British capitalism,” it continues, arguing for York to be an open university to “help people to struggle against exploitation, and [for it] to be available for their use.” It concluded that the shape the university needed in a revolutionised society “are totally alien to the existing channels of the present structure.” 

The demands made here assume a rejection of capitalism not shared by the management and probably not by most students. However, they were not anti-education. The original ideals of the University had been changed to incorporate students as part of the apparatus of government and the principle of in loco parentis had been discarded, raising their status from charges of the staff to another group of adults in the institution.

Increased radicalisation meant that now there were noticeable groups who, unlike most students, did want to fundamentally change the educational ideals laid out in the development plan.  They wanted an institution open to all and to work against capitalism. They were unsuccessful in their aims but undoubtedly their presence along with more militant action outside York made the moderate demands of the majority more palatable.