Fifty years ago today, students from the University of Birmingham occupied the Aston Webb building in protest at a lack of student representation at the University. Half a century later, Jenny Wickham shares her experiences as one of those protesters
It is said that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there! So when I was asked to talk about the University of Birmingham sit-in of 1968, at a meeting of the BRIHC (Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures) in May 2018, I initially remembered very little. My most enduring memory was that the Vice-Chancellor’s office carpet (pale green I think) was softer and more luxurious than any carpet I had seen before. How do I know? Because I spent the night on it during the occupation. It was much pleasanter than sleeping on the Great Hall floor, which was hard and dusty.
I want to give a little context to the sit-in, in relation to the wider world, and why we were so keen to challenge the establishment.
Our parents had lived through world war and austerity. But we, post-war baby boomers, were let loose as teenagers into the swinging sixties, popular music and culture, anti-establishment comedy, the connectedness of the global village when mass media enabled us to know, in ways we could not know before, what was going on in the world, and to challenge it. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were all tools of revolt, and fun as well.
There was a lot going on which we wanted to challenge. The Vietnam War sparked massive protests against American action from around the world; on 17th March 1968 a huge demonstration outside the US embassy in London protested both US action and the heavy handed police response. In the US Martin Luther King, indomitable fighter for civil rights, was, shockingly, assassinated on 4th April.
In May 1968 ‘Les Événements’ in Paris began with student protests against capitalism, US imperialism and traditional institutions, spreading to strikes involving 11 million workers. In August the Democratic Convention in Chicago was disrupted by five days of street demonstrations by thousands of anti-Vietnam war protesters, who adopted the chant ‘the whole world’s watching’ – which we certainly were.
So where does the Birmingham sit-in fit in to all of this? Student protest became widespread in many British universities. Indeed, protest was on the agenda from the time I arrived at the University in 1967, encouraged both by students and by a key talk to freshers by Stuart Hall; I remember attending my first ever protest meeting in the Great Hall soon after arriving. Dissatisfaction was rife and the management of the University was seen as out of touch and patriarchal (it is near-impossible to find any women involved in the Senate, Council or the running of the University at that time).
The Guild of Students published a document on ‘The Student Role’ in February 1968, which called for student representation on the University Council, Senate and departmental committees. The students wanted a commission to look into these issues, with 50% student representation, some of which was agreed; however, the Council were unable to agree on student representation and the inexperienced Vice-Chancellor, Robert Hunter, said he would let students present a case but not remain for the discussion.
The Council would not concede to the (quite reasonably expressed) demands and so the students threatened direct action at the end of October; they refused to withdraw the ‘Student Role’ demands and felt that the University was misleading the Guild. Sue Jackson, the Guild vice-president, called for direct action; when asked at the Guild of Students’ meeting what was meant by direct action she said ‘I mean strike, I mean blow this place up…’, which was greeted with applause and stamping.
The occupation began on Wednesday 27th November, first in the Great Hall and then the wider Aston Webb building, including the Vice-Chancellor’s office. The next day more than one thousand students joined the occupation; during the weekend that followed students organised their own teach-in, at which there were many discussions on the nature of the University, its relation to society, political theory, the relevance of individual courses, and student representation on University committees. The teach-in came up with four key demands:
- No victimisation
- All University committees to meet in public
- The right of students to a say in University government
- A Commission to examine the role and structure of the University
I want to try to explain our feelings at the time. We had little experience of protest, but very much wanted to be given a say, treated as grown-ups. Some of us were nervous about what we were doing – invading a vice-chancellor’s office seemed to be not quite right and yet absolutely the right thing. The Guild of Students carefully steered the sit-in via its rules, led (in a very mature way) by its President Ray Phillips and Sue Jackson, with the backing of some academic staff, such as Stuart Hall, Dick Atkinson and Bob Holman (possibly to the detriment of their later careers).
We took our politics very seriously; however, there was a febrile atmosphere, with rumours flying around of left-wing agitators and undercover journalists infiltrating the University (certainly students came from other colleges to support us, and journalists from local and national media covered the story). The suggestion of agitators may have been true, but fundamentally the action was initiated and driven by the Guild. Tensions arose because some students, and the few academic staff who supported them, feared victimisation as a result of participation in the sit-in.
A huge amount of work went on in the Great Hall, where we established an alternative community (complete with delivered trays of sandwiches), and elsewhere were efforts to provide posters, fliers and general information to the protesters; there was silkscreening, roneo printing and production of an extra edition of Redbrick. We enjoyed doing something different from normal coursework and lectures, which seemed often quite dry and irrelevant. The meetings that led to the sit-in were full of an energy and passion which lasted for several days, though it waned as time passed without a concession from the University.
The sit-in tailed off after the weekend (perhaps we wanted to sleep in our own beds, have baths and proper meals) and eventually ended on Thursday 5th December after a general meeting of the Guild of Students (possibly the vote to end the sit-in was driven by Engineering students being given the afternoon off classes, as the sit-in had previously largely involved students from Arts, Law and Social Sciences); however, the issues were not settled and fractious discussions between students and University authorities continued for more than a year.
I have been asked ‘did the sit-in make a difference?’ It certainly did to me, convincing me of the importance of involvement, to express views, to protest when necessary. I am sure it eventually made some difference to the University, but a screengrab of the 2017-18 membership of the Senate showed that although six places are now allocated for students, only one was taken up. Why was that? However, students seem much more involved at a Departmental level.
For students today there is still plenty to protest about: student mental health; high student fees for little tuition time, high-interest debt and lack of maintenance grants; wage and pension inequality among university staff. Racism, sexual harassment, homophobia, issues around free speech regularly seem to crop up on campuses. Protesting may not always be the appropriate answer, but there is always something to protest about.
Written by Jenny Wickham, ex-University of Birmingham and Redbrick alumna.
The Guild of Students will be hosting an event on December 7th to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 occupation, featuring speeches and attendees from those who took part, and copies of Redbrick from the week of the protests. More information can be found on their website.