My revolting past

March 12, 2004

Peter Knight recalls that lust and food prompted him into political action as a student

Today, Peter Knight is the UK's longest-serving vice-chancellor and head of the University of Central England since 1985. He is noted for keeping his institution out of one round of the research assessment exercise and for suggesting that the nascent Council for Modern Universities might respond to better-heeled groupings by meeting at McDonald's.

Then, he was an undergraduate physicist at York University, preoccupied by his studies. He says: "I went there in 1965, part of the first intake on the Heslington campus. There were 14 physicists, so the staff-to-student ratio was better than one to one. Physics is a hard subject and for three years I barely lifted my head above my oscilloscope. I loved every minute."

The drawback was the catering. Lord James of Rusholme, the vice-chancellor, had instituted an Oxbridge-style college system, with a built-in requirement that students eat most meals in their own college: "We had meal tickets, costing about 4 shillings each. It made it difficult to eat with a girlfriend in a different college. James, to his great credit, would come into the canteen and queue for his meals with everyone else and I used to harangue him about this," Knight says.

By his postgraduate years, he had become more active and politicised. He says: "I became president of the Graduate Society and a group of us started York Student Radio, with the first independent radio licence in the country. James feared that we wanted to preach revolution, but what really interested us was playing music and faffing around with wires."

Not that revolution was wholly out of the question when York contributed to the wave of student occupations in the late 1960s. "It was revolution over the price of sausages - a confused mix of complaints about higher catering prices, wanting to know if the university had secret files - the Warwick row was about the same time - and replacing capitalism with a workers'

democracy. Part of Heslington Hall was occupied," he says.

Knight formed a counter-revolutionary alliance with John Randall, the student union president and later president of the National Union of Students and head of the Quality Assurance Agency. Knight says: "We were both fed up with the Trots - Randall because they'd made him climb onto the roof of Heslington Hall to raise a red flag and he didn't like heights. I was annoyed because the vice-chancellor had shut the Heslington Hall bar and that got in the way of the good life."

Both were politically mainstream - Knight would be a Labour candidate in 1974. Once they'd outmanoeuvred the radicals over the location of a general meeting - "it was held somewhere even the physicists were capable of staggering to" - the revolution (although not the sausage complaint) was off. He points out that few physicists are truly radical. "There's a nasty, ingrained streak of pragmatism that gets in the way."

Looking at today's students, he says: "Our union presidents are probably more conservative and almost certainly better dressed than I am. But today's students are active in the community and working with disadvantaged schools. It is a far more caring, less self-indulgent approach."

He looks back with unashamed affection: "I had six years at the state's expense, loved every minute and got two degrees and, although I didn't know it at the time, a wife. That's quite a bargain."

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