Swinging Sixties

High-minded ideals and student activism in the University of York’s early years

This is the first 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.

There had been a local desire for a university in York for quite some time. In 1947 an approach was made to the University Grants Committee by prominent local citizens to put this desire into action.

It was turned down.

Undeterred, an Academic Trust was set up and a site of 180 acres at Heslington was bought and two academic institutions founded; the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research and the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies. By 1960, government policy had changed and York was to be one of seven new universities.

Much of the ideals in the planning of York can be seen as an attempt to right the wrongs of the Civic Universities, universities that were built from old higher education institutes.

Rather than the Civics’ division between halls of residence and faculties, a college system would be ‘an extension of the opportunities for meeting new people and making contact with fresh ideas and experiences which are a raison d’être of the University itself’. It was taken for granted that ‘all members of a college will be of the same sex’.

Student's in their early halls.
Students in their early halls.

It would be understandable, given York’s status as a new university, to see it as a manifestation of 1960s modernisation and progress but, as the college system implies, the ideals were largely drawn from the past. That’s not to say that Lord James, the first Chancellor at the University, wasn’t a believer in modern ways, just that he did not believe ‘novelty is itself a virtue’. This blend of old and new carried through to the architecture that we all know and love today.

James did not want to imitate the ‘Victorian fortress’ style of existing universities. York was to be more modernist in its approach and style. A special method of industrial building called CLASP, which was practical, cheap was used to put up York’s infamous architecture and meant all buildings were completed on time and within cost. Inside the buildings the space mixed areas for teaching, living, eating and leisure, in the style of Oxbridge.

Given these tiny beginnings, it is not surprising that York was a placid place for its first three years and that its identity didn’t seem very fixed.

When it came to the principles for the new university York was founded with some high-minded ideals. There was a deep commitment to a university’s essential purpose, ‘the advancement of learning and the dissemination of knowledge’, and James felt its highest obligation was to the truth rather than society.

It is always worth bearing in mind that when the University of York first opened its doors in 1963, to 215 students, it was smaller in population than Lord James’ prior institution, Manchester Grammar School, which had over 1,000 pupils. It is also worth remembering that, in essence, James was presiding over a muddy field for the first part of York’s existence.

The muddy hole that became the University of York
The muddy hole that became the University of York

The University population was split between Heslington Hall, around which the campus was quickly to be built, and King’s Manor in the centre of town. It is entirely logical that their plans were based around students behaving as they had before and simply enjoying this place that had been created for them. That they would take issue with the system and much that was not in the plan would be a surprise.

When it came to politics Lord James was all for looking forward in many ways as well. A staff-student committee and scope for student representatives on minor committees such as catering was mentioned early on. The new University wouldn’t have a union but they could have a Student Representative Council and decide its constitution. College rules, James said, ‘should be as rational and liberal as possible’ and made ‘by consultation with students’. Note the word ‘consultation’ rather than shared decision-making. The phrase ‘as liberal as possible’ means as far as James thought possible, the assumption is the rules are for him to make.

From inception, York had student activists but many staff were more committed than a lot of students. Management didn’t disapprove either; James was the patron of York’s anti-apartheid society.

Activism on campus covered a lot of the major issues of the day including apartheid in South Africa but politics even extended to an area that most of us took for granted as students: catering. The issue of catering prices had surfaced in the summer term of 1967. The issue was that the collegiate catering system was losing money.

Students having a drink with locals.
Students having a drink with locals.

Lord James wanted to raise prices to make up for the deficit but students felt that money could easily be saved by not using every college dining room each day and instead rotating between them. James understandably was not keen to see the college system, such a big part of his vision for York, undermined in this way. Students cared a lot less about it.

John Randall, who was later president, remembers ‘The only times when we had major disputes was where the University did appear to the ordinary student to be acting unreasonably.’ The catering boycott was one of those times and, for it to be effective, the apathetic majority had to join in, which they did. Another student Julian Friedmann recalls that “we would announce literally three minutes before dinner time which of the college canteens were going to be boycotted that evening – so they would prepare all the food and no one would eat it. The Catering Boycott was the first direct action by students against the management, asserting their power against decisions taken without their consent.