Middle-class posturing or a victorious fight for real changes?

April 18, 2003

In 1970, Ivor Gaber and his fellow students occupied their university registry. Last week they met to reassess the events of the 'Warwick Spring'

A toast to the student union building." A group of middle-aged journalists, academics, teachers and full-time politicians beamed at each other and sipped their wine. They were toasting the student union building at Warwick University, in which they were sitting. They were also toasting themselves.

For they had been part of a larger group of students who 33 years ago had occupied the registry in protest against the university authorities'

refusal to allow them their own social building. It was a sit-in that grabbed headlines and sparked national debate. The former students were back on campus last week to take part in a retrospective workshop on the events surrounding the sit-in, entitled "The Warwick Spring 1970".

The school tuck shop was the cause of my downfall. I had become its manager to try to boost my equivalent of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service "personal statement". It must have impressed - I was accepted to the spanking-new University of Warwick, just outside Coventry, in 1967. A couple of years later, just before my finals, I found myself legally forbidden from attending the campus. I was injuncted because I was on the sit-in organising committee - as catering manager, because a friend remembered my stewardship of the school's tuck shop.

In fact, there were two sit-ins. The first lasted 24 hours. The second was called soon after the university tried to discipline members of the student union executive who had led the first. When we returned to the registry for the second time, we had sussed that the best places to sleep were in the secretaries' offices, which were carpeted. The president of the union struck a deal with the deputy vice-chancellor: he'd open those offices for us provided we gave our word that we wouldn't break into any others. But then a discovery was made that changed everything.

Part of the prevailing narrative of the "Warwick files" was that occupying students happened to come across some suspicious papers that suggested "further investigation" would be fruitful. After the discovery, we had an agonised debate that went on for hours as to whether we should break our word and scour the rest of the building for more documents. The union president resigned when we decided to start prising open the filing cabinets. I had always wondered where the tools to do this job had suddenly come from and, indeed, whether the administrators had really left incriminating paperwork lying around. "I'm not sure how spontaneous the whole thing was," one former activist admitted shyly last week. "I remember wondering what John was carrying as we marched into the registry."

The files contained information that seemed to suggest that the administration and industrialists were acting improperly in pursuit of their vision of a "business university". There were reports to the vice-chancellor from the managing director of Rootes Motors - a member of the university council - about academic staff and students who had met with Rootes workers; details of an investigation into whether a leftwing US academic could be deported; even a letter from a university council member wondering whether the unkempt, jeans-wearing students could be made to wear caps and gowns. The discovery of the files persuaded us to end the occupation and publicise their contents.

At last week's workshop, it emerged that the resistance to a student union building was symptomatic of the administration's understanding of what constituted a university. The impetus for founding the institution at Coventry had come largely from industrialists in the engineering-based city. They dominated the university council and, the workshop heard, opposed to the very notion of a student union, because "students" were there to study while "unions" were something they had to deal with on the shop-floor.

Michael Shattock, deputy registrar at the time, now visiting professor at the Institute of Education in London, was as pugnacious as ever. He admitted that the university had acted stupidly on several occasions leading up to the sit-in. He was also prepared to concede that the events of 1970 did play a role in reforming a university administration that had, to some extent, lost its way: control had slipped into the hands of the lay industrialists and the vice-chancellor. But his overall take on the events of 1970 was scathing.

Shattock told of the enormous disappointment felt by some of Coventry's trade union and city council leaders, who had hoped the new university would provide a fillip for the struggling West Midlands engineering industry and play "a civilising mission" in the life of the city. In fact, the majority of staff and students chose to live in the more pleasant middle-class towns of Kenilworth and Leamington Spa - all that Coventry saw was a drain on its resources and the posturings of middle-class student revolutionaries. This was a contested view, not least by one of the student activists who subsequently became leader of the city council.

For the former deputy registrar, the events of 1970 represented a "crisis of expectation" in which the local community, academics and students failed to appreciate how long it took to build a university. Shattock accepted that as a result not only did Warwick reform and improve its internal governance, it created a template that many other universities have benefited from. But he argued that the immediate consequences were disastrous. Recruitment fell by 25 per cent, and the morale of academics and administrators was hit hard. He reckoned that it took a decade for the university to recover.

Shattock had come to Warwick from Kenya, where he had seen Kenyatta's riot police beat and imprison staff and students - "a searing political experience involving real questions about academic freedom". He compared them with Warwick's "middle-class student revolutionaries", members of an "elite" at a time when fewer than 10 per cent of school-leavers gained places at university.

He touched a nerve in the workshop. A number of the former students declared their working-class backgrounds and said they had found the experience of Warwick in the late 1960s both liberating and oppressive.

"They were electric times," said one. "We had great causes to fight for - Vietnam, apartheid, the student uprising in Paris. Here at Warwick, we had inspirational figures such as E. P. Thompson and Germaine Greer. We were adults and we wanted to change the world, and yet we found ourselves faced by a university administration that took the phrase " in loco parentis " to heart and wanted to treat us as children, and usually naughty ones at that."

The former students believed that by putting power back into the hands of the academics they had enabled Warwick to develop the "mixed economy" of subjects that has made it, perhaps, the success story of contemporary British higher education. The files' revelations led to sympathetic leaders in The Times and The Guardian , sparking a national debate about how a university could preserve its status as an academic community while having positive relationships with business.

The last word must go to a former student who joined the sit-in after the files were found. After university, she stayed in Coventry to teach in a local comprehensive. She noted that sometimes students from Warwick offered to help the school but, despite her best efforts, the university itself appeared uninterested. This contrasted with a more proactive stance of Coventry University, the former polytechnic. "I don't know if we made any difference," she said, "but certainly the university, as an institution, felt distant to me then and still feels distant to me now. Is it because it still sees itself as the 'business university'?"

Ivor Gaber is emeritus professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He co-wrote a Penguin special, Warwick University Ltd , in the weeks after his exclusion from campus.

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