What war can be good for

March 21, 1997

Next week the funding debate is set to dominate the 75th conference of the National Union of Students. Harriet Swain looks at the battles fought on floor and platform

The year is 1968: the National Union of Students begins its spring conference with a minute's silence to mourn Martin Luther King. It is a conference dominated by overseas issues as student unrest sweeps through Europe and by internal wrangling.

These two themes have been present in one form or another at every NUS conference since the first, 75 years ago. It is a rare presidential speech which fails to use the word "battle" at least once.

The NUS owes its origin to war. It was set up after the first world war by students wanting to affiliate to the new Confederation Internationale des Etudiants. Many involved had entered university after serving their country and came with a broad outlook. It first met in February 1922, attended by 14 institutions from England and Wales. Scottish students had had their own federation for some time and only joined in 1971.

The union was an active member of the CIE in the 1920s while raising the profile of graduate unemployment back home. In the 1930s it concentrated on teaching, grants and the curriculum, opening its doors to further education students in 1937. But as the second world war approached and the CIE became identified with fascism apathy struck British students. After the war the movement rediscovered its idealism and membership more than doubled between 1946 and 1949 to 105,000. In 1947, the NUS affiliated to the new International Union of Students.

All this ended with the cold war. British students disaffiliated from the IUS, which they believed had become too close to Communism while political divisions prompted disaffiliations from the NUS itself. By 1953, membership had declined by 20 per cent from 1949.

The first student sit-in, at the London School of Economics, came in 1967. As rival groups began to challenge the union's authority, against an international background of violent student demonstrations, President Geoff Martin opened the 1968 conference by speaking of the dangers of "student power".

By 1970, things had calmed down, although bomb threats proved disruptive. As were women, referred to in minutes as "girl delegates". Pledging their support for anti-Miss World demonstrations, the "girls" condemned "the treatment given to women delegates and speakers by male chauvinists present (particularly the executive) and condemns this behaviour as being a manifestation of repressive social conditioning".

President at the time, and chief member of the executive, was Jack Straw, now Labour's spokesman on home affairs. According to the minutes of that debate, he had earlier "apologised for mumbling all the morning into the microphone but he'd had a rough night".

Racism and fascism were the themes in 1974, which was interrupted by a student covered with blood who claimed to have been beaten up by police. The next year, economic crisis was the issue as students faced inflation of more than 25 per cent.

Minutes of the past 40 years reveal students throwing paper darts, switching off the microphones, pledging to disrupt a meeting just "to be silly" and "a farceur" reading out a press copy of a presidential speech while the president tried to read it himself.

Next week's conference will address serious issues of funding, relations between higher and further education and a graduate tax. A little chaos would merely be keeping with tradition.

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