*Gategate: probably not what Manchester students called their first direct action.
The cover image for this blog shows the Whitworth Building on Oxford Road (where the gates in question were locked) as the site of a later student protest in the 1969/70 academic year.
This article has been contributed by Dr Sarah Webster, who has completed a PhD on student activism and protest in England.
One January morning, University of Manchester porters needed bolt-cutters to prize open the metal gates to three staff car parks. Armed with heavy chains and locks, disgruntled students had chained the gates shut at 8.30am, protesting some unpopular edict from the University authorities. The gates were open again by 9am, making the protest minimally disruptive. However, it was the first ever direct action protest on the Manchester campus.
The action calls to mind the student racialism of the late sixties, when the world seemed to teeter on the brink of a revolution led by student radicals. But the reality is that it was a cold morning in January 1959. Fifties students are not immediately associated with student protest. They are more commonly characterised as a sombre and studious lot, interested in their lectures and tea dances, not civil disobedience. The decade is also not famed for its student political activism; there were only 10 protests involving University of Manchester students between the academic years of 1950/51 and 1959/60. With two protests occurring in 1950/51 and the rest falling after 1955/56, there was not even one protest a year. Yet, in 1959, with no obvious build in campus discontent, a small group of students attempted to seriously disrupt the University’s daily functioning. They were protesting a ban on students parking in the main university car park, an edict suddenly imposed by the university over the Christmas vacation.
It is perhaps the most middle class of student protests. White, middle-class students dominated the mid-twentieth century student population, but, even so, car-driving students were likely a campus minority. Although car ownership soared in fifties Britain, very few families could have afforded to run two cars, and the available state grants and scholarships would not have stretched to a car as well as tuition fees and accommodation costs. With the possible exception of some mature students (mainly ex-servicemen), any car-owning student was likely to be from a very wealthy family.
It is easy to dismiss the protest as the temper tantrum of a few entitled young men. To some extent that is true, as the ban affected only a small minority. However, the protest is also an expression of student discontent about their exclusion from university governance and decision making. Over the Christmas vacation, the University Senate had not only banned student cars, but also voted to make major changes to the academic year and exam system. The new changes would require students to study independently over the long summer vacation for exams in mid-September, long after the end of teaching in May; this was a major shift from the existing system of end of year examinations. The University Lodgings Officer had also issued guidance to local landladies on curfews and rent rates for student tenants. Although students were assured the guidance was only suggestions, there were complaints of problems and evictions as landladies felt compelled to apply the university’s rules.
The university’s failure to consult students or their Union representatives about decisions directly affecting the student body incensed undergraduates. An editorial in the student body’s newspaper, News Bulletin on 22 January 1959 complained, “it will not help staff-student relationships if they treat us like a lot of schoolchildren”. They conceded “that the university authorities have our best interests at heart”, but implied those authorities to be a patronising dictatorship with little regard for student opinions. The action had reiterated the student body’s exclusion from all levels of university governance.
Most British students were not formally represented in university governance structures before the late sixties. Although student unions were well established, any student consultation was highly informal, occurring in semi-regular meetings between union presidents and university vice chancellors. The system excluded students from all decision-making committees and bodies within the university. They had no voice on decisions, however significant, regarding their university education and experience. While unions could and did put forward complaints and requests in union meetings, the action taken by the universities was entirely discretionary.
Many academics and university administrators considered students to be too naïve, immature and ill-informed to participate in the serious business of university governance. That attitude sat at odds with university students’ status as the best and brightest in Britain, and with students’ own self-conceptions as articulate participants in the university community. They felt equally involved in and affected by any changes (or lack thereof) on campus and thus well qualified to comment on issues like curriculum development, exam systems and library overcrowding. Student representation was an area of bitter resentment and frustration on many British campuses. News Bulletin captures regular calls for better staff-student relations and greater student consultation.
Student representation was a key area of activism in the late sixties. Pickets, occupations and marches were all used to challenge and pressurise the universities on student participation in governance structures alongside appeals from student union officers. At Manchester, protests around representation continued into the early seventies, but students eventually secured their representation at every level of the university and in all matters. Representation at every level was a major change to the university’s governance structure. Students were now able to contribute to proposals made by the university and to bring forward their own complaints, ideas and demands. They weren’t shy about doing so either. In the early seventies, they demanded in multiple council meetings the sale of shares in South Africa, something the University were initially reluctant to agree to.
Change to student representation came long after that cold January morning. But those grumpy souls can be seen to mark the start of a concerted student effort at Manchester and beyond to force students onto all university committees. Regular student protest activity only emerged in the mid-sixties, but the chained car park gates represented a new willingness in British students to directly challenge their universities.
News Bulletin, 22nd January 1959. University of Manchester Student Union Archive. SUA/8/1/16. Available in the University of Manchester Archives and Record Centre, located in the University of Manchester Library.
For more on student representation:
Ashby, E., and Anderson, M., 1970. The Rise of the Student Estate in Britain. London: Macmillan and Co Ltd.
Pullan, B., and Abendstern, M., 2000. A History of the University of Manchester, 1951-1973. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Pullan, B., and Abendstern, M., 2004, A History of the University of Manchester, 1973-1990. Manchester: Manchester University Press.