Peter Hoskin

From the archives: The student protests of ‘68

From the archives: The student protests of '68
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No, not Paris, but the University of Essex – where, in early to mid-1968, students rallied angrily against Vietnam and all that. The situation was aggravated when three students – including David Triesman, later Lord Triesman – were summarily suspended from their studies, and The Spectator duly dispatched a correspondent to investigate. The resultant article came in the issue dated 24 May 1968; a few pages on from an editorial headlined "How to deal with the student problem", and alongside coverage of events in France. Here it is:

The truth about Essex, Ian MacGregor, The Spectator, 24 May 1968

The first thing that strikes you about Essex university is the architecture: four great black slabs of brick rising into the clear East Anglian air – the residential towers – and the teaching buildings lying low into a gentle ravine. The juxtaposition of aggressively functional modern buildings with a pastoral landscape is at first as jarring as the architect meant it to be. But after a while the logic of the whole enterprise asserts itself : the hectic city-like island of buildings at sea in uncluttered countryside that has changed since Constable painted it.

The second thing that strikes you about Essex, at least if you mingle with the students, is how middle-class the place is. Here are the sons and daughters of prosperous professional and business people; the proportion of offspring of manual workers is probably lower than at Oxford. There are no class distinctions at Essex, to be sure, but that is mainly because there is only one class.

Of course, some of the students like to identify themselves with the toiling masses. Last week a student deputation called on building workers on the site, wondering whether they would like to strike in sympathy with the three suspended students. The labourers listened politely but declined to strike until they had heard both sides. ‘Anyway,’ one of them said, ‘if we strike, we lose a day’s pay. It’s all right for them: they get paid for by their parents.’ News of local authority grants doesn’t seem to have got through.

The position of the protesting British student is at once comfortable an vulnerable: comfortable because, except in extremis, the term’s grand always comes through; vulnerable because he has nowhere else to go. The American student who gets into trouble with his college authorities or just doesn’t like a place can always transfer to somewhere else; his course credits at one university will usually be accepted at others. Not only can the British student not transfer easily: if he loses his LEA grant at one university, he loses it at all. The news that two of the three suspended students had had their grants cut off sent a thrill of horror through the student body.

But the loss of the grants has been the only intrusion of order into an atmosphere otherwise wholly anarchic. No, not quite the only one: last Thursday there was the incongruous spectacle of Dr Sloman, the slight, immaculate Vice-Chancellor, addressing a mass meeting of a thousand bearded and pink-cheeked boys and healthy and occasionally brassiere-less girls, American protesters tend to be unkempt and dirty; at Essex, they’re unkempt and clean. So far, at least, they’ve laughed a lot and grown angry remarkably seldom.

The anarchy is, up to a point, mainly the university’s fault. Essex is often described as being liberal. It is; but it’s also anarchic, which is different and more important. A liberal university is presumably one where students are allowed to get on with their private lives free from the petty harassments of Oxford and Cambridge. At Essex the mistake – and it was a very understandable one to make – was to suppose that treating students like adults meant not imposing any rules on them, whereas, in fact, adult life is replete with rules and constraints. Essex students are treated with rules and constraints. Essex students are treated not like adults but like children in an unusually permissive family.

Permissive – and inconsistent. And it was the inconsistency rather than the permissiveness that led to last week’s troubles. Ever since the university began it has been plagued by vandalism and sporadic acts of violence, and also by a minority of militant students determined to goad Dr Sloman and his colleagues into some rash action that the students could capitalise on. Until recently the militant’s chief grievance – one they felt very keenly – was their lack of a grievance.


The university’s reaction to provocation was for nearly four years that of a well-meaning rather baffled parent. Vandalism and violence were as far as possible left to the police to deal with. The militant agitation was responded to ad hoc: Some useful institutions such as departmental staff-student liaison committees emerged, but few rules and no settled disciplinary procedures. Students knew they could get away with a good deal but were never quite sure how much.

Earlier this spring some of them got away with a lot. Following a speech by Enoch Powell to the University Conservative Association, a few dozen students pushed and jostled him, and somebody threw an object variously described as a brick and a piece of pipe at he local MP’s car. Not an important incident in itself, but such efforts as were made to take disciplinary action were obstructed – and the university gradually allowed the affair to peter out. Each side drew its conclusion: the Vice-Chancellor that he must act more firmly next time; the students that he never would.

And then from Porton Down came Dr Inch – ‘give ‘em an Inch and they’ll run a mile.’ Among the many rules Essex didn’t have was one prohibiting the disruption of academic lectures, so when Dr Inch was prevented from speaking the Vice-Chancellor felt he had no option but to by-pass the disciplinary procedures and take action on his own authority. Anyway, the disciplinary procedures had been called in question by the Powell episode and were likely to be obstructed. His tactical error – he still passionately believes he was right on the main issue – was not to summon the chief culprits before him.

Some of Essex’s troubles arise from the fact that it is a very good university – perhaps the best of the new ones, certainly one of the best. It is a high-morale institution which finds it easy to attract teachers and loses few good ones. But the staff’s very quality and ambition contribute to the general air of rulelessness. Experiment and change are endemic. Courses are offered one year and not the next. Examination rules change incessantly. And the staff’s restlessness communicates itself to the students, whose own politics – there is a new students’ council constitution almost every year, sometimes two – remind the visitor of the Congo or pre-Franco Castile.

Last week it was being said as though it were true that ‘failures of communication’ were at the root of the problem. In fact, staff and students and staff and staff at Essex communicate non-stop – far more than at any other university anyone has ever heard of. The trouble is that there is so much to communicate that inevitably some messages are delayed and others never get through. The problem somehow seems to be made worse, not better, by the confined space – one corner of the great estate – in which the university moves. Certainly during the past week rumours have rebounded around the man quad like balls in a squash court.

But this all makes the Essex affair sound rather jolly, and it hasn’t been jolly at all. Such violence as there has been is not worth worrying about, but it’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that the future of a potentially great university is at stake.

Much of the responsibility must be assigned to a section of the junior staff: lecturers and assistant lecturers mainly in their early thirties or younger. Some junior staff have remained silent. Others, including practically the whole of the economics department, have criticised Dr Sloman on the narrow ground of his failure to summon the three suspended students, but have otherwise urged restraint. But others – perhaps a quarter of the total – have both condemned the Vice-Chancellor and set out permanently to disrupt the university.

Politics has something to do with it. One leading militant is a communist of long standing; several others are associated with the various fragments of the ‘new left’. But, looking at them, one suspects that personal considerations are more important for most. Essex is a high-pressure institution, demanding not only a high standard of teaching but also much in the way of research and publication.

And for some the pressure may be too great. Essex’s staff rebels include a grossly disproportionate number of the bookless, the PhD-less, even the promotionless. In one arts department, the hard core of militants apparently coincides almost exactly with members of staff recently warned that they may not be granted tenure.

There is also a paradox in staff-student relations: many junior-staff, now seized of the virtues of intimate staff-student communion, have in the past kept students at the greatest distance. One of the more perfervid, but also prolific, militants is notorious in the university for driving in to give his classes and then as quickly driving home to write his books. One militant member of the staff-student liaison committee, it is said, attended the first meeting of the committee and has not been seen since. Alienation in some cases is pretty generalised.

All of which is not to say that Essex is about to collapse – or be taken over. Earlier in the week the University Senate showed signs of beginning to reassert its authority, and the imminence of examinations will help in the short term. The real danger is that, if turmoil and militancy are prolonged over months or even years, the most able of the staff, the men most concerned with teaching and research, will gradually grow weary of it all and find new jobs. Essex won’t end with a bang; but it could end with a quiet exodus.