The Medieval Universitas

This article has been contributed by Marci Freedman, a medieval historian who has recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester. Her research profile is available on:

The University as an institution is often associated with the built environment. Its infrastructure reflects a certain gravitas and they seem to breathe an air of erudition. Universities are incredibly proud of their buildings which highlight their beginnings and their heritage; no campus tour is complete without these points of interest. Whilst this may provide the history of a specific university, it is not the physical environment which can inform us about the early rise of the university as a socio-cultural development of the twelfth century. In fact, the infrastructures of universities across Europe often do not accord with their earliest years as the majority of buildings are late medieval or early modern foundations. To truly understand the rise of the university in the Middle Ages, one must turn to the people and cities who provide the backdrop. It is the purpose of this post to explore who comprised the earliest universities, their position within respective university cities and what this reveals about the university as a place of learning in medieval European society.

Medieval uni

The true beginnings of Europe’s oldest universities are obscure. What is certain is that the university is a development of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Within these uncertain beginnings are wandering scholars – men who travelled to seek out masters of a specific subject, or who followed these masters from city to city. Masters attracted scholars through their reputation which led to students hiring them for instruction, thereby establishing a learning group known as a universitas (learning community). Other universities were established by the Church who paid the masters, and others still were established by the nobility and state. The earliest university structure was predominantly transient and comprised of lectures organised in ad hoc locations, often private halls and Churches. Certain cities did emerge as the leaders in specific fields – Bologna for law, Paris for theology (to name just two), with students travelling from across Europe to attend them. This tied universities to the urban expansion that was occurring across medieval Europe.

With the influx of students into cities the demand for goods, services and accommodation rose, as did the prices of these necessities. A student would typically require a range of supplies and services, including (but not limited to) stationery, books, clothes, food, ale/wine and money changers. In the natural course of supply and demand, prices could be extortionate. In response, students and masters began to organise themselves into guilds against the exploitations of townsmen. One means was to threaten to leave the city and take their learning elsewhere (as students in Paris did in 1229). A second option was to negotiate a charter with the town which would grant privileges to masters and students – such as price fixing and student exemptions from civil jurisdiction (although they remained subject to the ecclesiastical courts). To further mitigate the inflated prices of room and board, purpose-built colleges were erected in some towns, particularly in Oxford. The beginnings of the University as an institution – one which was self-governing and insular – caused tensions between “town and gown” (the city and the university) and, at times, erupted into violence (such as Oxford’s famous St Scholastica Day of 1355). Nonetheless, teaching continued and physical structures were gradually built which further tied universities to specific cities and entrenched them within the urban landscape.

The student body was entirely comprised of literate men, anywhere from their mid-teens to thirties, who arrived at the university with a range of motivations and incomes. All were proficient in Latin, the lingua franca of medieval learning and allowed for men of different nations to converse. It is difficult to trace the daily lives of students, and little evidence survives which shed light on this section of urban society. Some of the documentation which has been left to us include: university and college statutes, student manuals, court and law records, sermons, as well as letters from students themselves. Much of this data provides a one-sided portrayal of lazy, reckless and haughty students who were a nuisance to the general populace. Townspeople might typically complain about ‘brawling, whoring, dicing, swanking around in inappropriate clothing, singing, dancing, carrying weapons and insulting not only the respectable citizens but also the forces of law and order’.[1] The extant evidence does little to differentiate between the different classes of students – the idle and aimless versus the diligent and academically gifted students – and can offer quite a negative image. Amongst the paucity of evidence is a body of letters which does shed some light on the daily lives of students. Reinforcing this image is a letter from a father to a son who sternly writes:

I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your most industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.[2]

Those who did attend university for academic pursuits were by far the larger group; though they remain less conspicuous in the documents. Of those that have survived, we are often presented with an image of the cash-strapped student which may resonate with their modern counterparts. For example, two twelfth-century brothers wrote to their father requesting funds:

This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the City of Orleans, and are devoting ourselves wholly to study…We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habit…Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer…money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and other things which we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honour…[3]

Although only one example, it begins to balance the view and reveals that there were plenty of assiduous students in attendance. The majority of requests were replied to by parents who remitted the desired amount – though some parents might have added a caveat for the student to moderate their expenses.

Medieval learning was a transmission of knowledge from masters to students. This was accomplished through lecturing from a specific text as well as through disputations, all of which were in the pursuit of knowledge. The university, however, was primarily an institution of vocational training; graduates were the clerks of government, high-office holders of the Church (bishops and theologians) as well as lawyers and doctors. The university thus offered a rare avenue for social mobility, providing poorer students opportunities not available before. Learning was especially useful to the State as governments ‘modernised’ trade, tax collection, record keeping and legal systems. Thus, it was university-educated men who increasingly came to underpin the bureaucratic machine of both Church and State.


[1] Hunt Janin, The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499 (Jefferson: NC, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008).

[2] Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1923) pp.79-80

[3] Ibid.

Contextualising the ‘D.P. Controversy’: UK student responses to European migration after WWII

The cover image shows University of Manchester students entering Whitworth Hall in the 1950s. Image courtesy of University of Manchester Library

This article has been contributed by Dr Alison Newby, who is currently researching the international student experience in the UK and works with University of Manchester collections, particularly those held in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.

Migrants are in the news. Wave upon wave of refugees from all over the world, risking life and limb to reach the shores of Europe. Set to be one of the most intractable issues of the century, the scale of this crisis can easily seem unprecedented. But is it?

Europe has experienced refugee crises before. The level of internal displacement after World War II was even greater and the challenges possibly even grimmer than those we face now. The flotsam and jetsam of the 1940s cataclysm were mired in the wreckage of those same economies, mangled as they were by devastation and destruction. Millions of people had been displaced with little hope for the future amid insurmountable difficulties in the present.

Amongst those displaced masses was a generation of university students. How did students in the UK respond to migration and the complex issues surrounding the task of ‘reconstructing university life’ in Europe after the war? This blog post will touch on the reaction nationally on campuses during the 1940s, before presenting how those issues played out specifically in the ‘D.P. Student Controversy’ in the University of Manchester Student Unions from 1949 to 1950.

By the 1940s a particular sense of student identity had emerged which ensured that the plight of displaced students across Europe did not go unnoticed among their peers in the UK. Georgina Brewis’s work on student volunteering1  charts the decades of voluntary action and coordination of national and international student associations in universities which had strengthened that sense of student identity, as well as the drive among students nationally to undertake campaigns and social service as students for students.

Significant national and international student organisations were active on UK campuses. By the war’s end, British students were already supporting an extensive relief programme for student victims. Universities in occupied territories had been viewed by the Nazis as breeding grounds for opposition to their regime, with the consequence that students were an actively persecuted population. What became known as World Student Relief (WSF) was set up by International Student Service (ISS), the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), and the Catholic group Pax Romana to focus on the needs of student refugees in particular.

UK students participated in helping WSR provide study material to both Allied and Axis student prisoners of war, send food supplies to students in occupied countries, and set up rest centres for students in liberated areas. After the war, WSR was recognised by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) as a relief agency specialising in the reconstruction of university life.

The National Union of Students (NUS) was also active on campuses, cooperating with the likes of ISS internationally to increase awareness of the scale of the task. In 1946, the NUS helped establish the International Union of Students (IUS). This new body lacked the specifically religious impetus that had historically driven the organisations noted above. Soon divided into opposing camps reflecting the growing chasm between east and west reflected in the emerging Cold War, IUS came to be increasingly viewed with suspicion by many as being overly influenced by Communists.

The rehabilitation of Germany as well as contacts with local and displaced students there were much-debated subjects. British student delegations to Germany contributed reports to their institutional magazines and newspapers revealing the extent of deprivation amongst students, emphasising the need for essential intellectual contacts to reduce Germany’s isolation. These reports educated the wider student body. It was in this broader context that a scheme encouraged by the UN International Relief Organisation (IRO) and organised by ISS arose to resettle selected displaced students from Germany and Austria within universities in countries such as the UK, the US and Canada.

By March 1949, the US was absorbing 1,500 such students, Canada 50 and the UK 35. IRO had set rigid standards for who would be considered a ‘D.P. Student’ in order to eliminate Quislings. Applicants needed to have gained their Matura qualification, and to have previously attended university – in the country they had been forced to leave, a German university, or the Baltic University, Pinneberg (a temporary institution in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, opened in 1946 to educate refugees from the Baltic States). In the UK, assurances were given by certain universities that they would accept specific numbers of such students. Oxford undertook to accept 3, Birmingham decided on 1 or 2, whilst Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool and Manchester each opened their doors to 1.

So much for the bigger picture. How did this play out locally amongst students in individual UK universities? Unfortunately, actual contemporary student views and activities are difficult to uncover. University archives have tended to see student union records in particular as ‘dispensable ephemera’. With a few honourable exceptions, institutions have made no effort to preserve them. Thus it is necessary to extrapolate from what little remains to get a feel for events and attitudes at a grassroots student level. To flesh out the story of how UK students responded to the migration of their peers from Europe, this study utilises resources held in the archives of the University of Manchester, reconstructing the so-called ‘D. P. Student Controversy’ in the University’s three Student Unions during 1949 to 1950.2

The question of ‘D.P. Students from Germany’ seems first to have arisen in March 1949. The Women’s Union (WU) sub-committee noted that acceptance of such students in universities across the UK could create considerable antagonism because university entrance was already so difficult for UK nationals. Nevertheless, sub-committee members wanted to support the presence of a D.P Student. To avoid problems in the wider student body, they suggested seeking the University’s consent, having the NUS control the financial aid, and raising money to support the student through voluntary contribution from other students.

Subsequently, the General Committee of the Men’s Union (MU) discussed in detail raising funds to cover the expenses of the D.P. Student. However, members faced an uphill struggle when an opposing faction decried the very idea of adopting such a student in the first place. Clearly, D.P. Students in Europe constituted a divisive issue on campus. Some in the student body were incensed that sacrosanct principles of democracy and freedom of speech were being threatened in this case by attempts among the factions to manipulate Student Union procedures to promote their own agendas. Eventually a motion at an Extraordinary General Meeting of MU was roundly defeated following a discussion in which ideological and political objections to displaced persons en masse were unsuccessfully pitted against a humanitarian plea for individual action.

The matter of the D.P. Student had tapped a rich vein of disagreement which continued to divide student opinion. Proceedings during a later WU General Meeting laid the precise bones of contention bare. The President supported an IUS missive outlining the trials and tribulations of D.P. Students, stating that the Committee recommended the WU join with the other two Unions to support the D.P. Student Scheme. However, wider ideological divisions concerning fears that the IUS was too close to Communists were filtering down into the student body itself, and this was reflected in the ensuing WU debate.

Sensitive to this, the NUS representative distanced herself from the IUS position, doubting that the D.P. Student Scheme was really necessary. The ISS representative advocated a broader view, saying that a D.P. Student should be allowed to benefit from experience of the British way of life to take back a conception of British democracy to less fortunate people at home. Another participant thought “colonials” should be invited rather than suspected “Fascist” undesirables. And yet another advocated strongly that Manchester should live up to its increasing reputation by setting an example for the furtherance of international understanding.

Student opinion in Manchester was clearly divided on the same lines reflected in the national debates described above.

Clarifications appeared in the University’s student press giving assurances that international bodies would ensure the exclusion of Quislings from the Scheme. British University lecturers working in Germany would serve on selection committees, and rigid IRO standards would be imposed on decisions about potential candidates. A shortlist would be sent to UK university departments able to accept a student. By October 1949, the three Student Unions had agreed the principle of maintaining a D.P. Student in Manchester for three years. The names and dossiers of candidates were examined by the Student Union Presidents in conjunction with the University authorities.

Thus it was that students participated in deciding which D.P. Student would benefit from attending the University under the Scheme, and student activities raised the funds to pay for his stay. The chosen student finally arrived in October 1950.

The above illustrates that, even at a local level, divisions existed in the UK student body surrounding the issue of the migration to Britain of D.P. Students. These divisions reflected wider ideological disagreements which in part stemmed from the emergence of the Cold War that would separate east and west in Europe for decades to come. Nevertheless, traditions of student voluntarism, activism and social service as students for students continued to be influential. The sense of a unique student identity that transcended borders won out in the skirmishes surrounding the controversial policy of accepting within the university displaced people from a region of Europe ravaged, not only by the effects of war, but also by the social collapse which flowed from the destruction of the Fascist regime that had caused so much harm.



  1. See Georgina Brewis’s superb study: A Social History of Student Volunteering. Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan  2014).
  2. According to Brewis, the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool have excellent records, as have several women’s colleges. This study pieces together the D.P. Student Controversy from editions of the University of Manchester’s News Bulletin  of 1949 to 1950. The News Bulletin was the official newspaper of the three Student Unions of the University of Manchester. The three Unions were the Women’s Union, Men’s Union and Tech Union (representing UMIST students), and they coordinated operations during the period. Student-originated material such as the Bulletins has rarely been preserved, so the availability of this University of Manchester publication (running from  21 November 1932  to  10 November 1960) offers a significant window into the world of students at the time. It can be consulted in the University of Manchester Archive, and was brought to my attention by Dr Sarah Webster, who has also written for this blog. Information concerning international student numbers generally over time at the University of Manchester and its antecedents has not been collated, but can be gleaned from the volumes of  Reports of Council to the Court of Governors which run from  1871  to    The category ‘Stateless’ is mentioned in three of these:   1951  (1 student);  1952  (2 students);  1954  (1 student).  ‘Stateless’ appears to refer to the displaced student who benefited from the D.P. Student Scheme, though it is not clear why there are two in 1952 and none in 1953.

Between War and Revolution: Trinity College Dublin 1914-22.

This post has been contributed by Dr Tomás Irish, lecturer in Modern History at Swansea University. He has recently released a new book looking at Trinity College Dublin in war and revolution, 1912-1923, available here.


On 24 April 1916, nationalist rebels seized the General Post Office in the centre of Dublin, inaugurating the Easter Rising which would lead to a week of fighting in the name of a newly-proclaimed Irish republic. At Trinity College Dublin, the university’s porters, fearing the worst, quickly locked the gates to the venerable institution, already depopulated owing to the ongoing war. In the hours that followed, a motley crew of students, professors, and alumni organized the defence of Trinity. They were joined in this by a small number of soldiers on leave from the front, from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. On the first night of the Rising, this improvised garrison numbered 44 men who acted in the full expectation of an attack upon the university, one which ultimately never came to pass.

In the week ahead, Trinity would become the hub from which British forces suppressed the nationalist rising, although it would in turn inspire a war of independence leading to the secession of 26 Irish counties from union with Britain in 1921. Trinity, traditionally a unionist institution with strong links to both the government in Westminster and the British Empire, was out of tune with the nationalist revolution and found itself sidelined by the new Irish Free State, which prioritized funding and influence for the National University of Ireland, where many of the revolutionaries had been educated. This left Trinity both emotionally and practically distant from the new state in the decades following the latter’s establishment.

Trinity College Dublin forms an unusual example of a university which saw its normal activities turned on their head by not one, but two conflicts in the second decade of the twentieth century. It found itself, in 1916, a site of mobilization for conflicts being fought at home and abroad. While the First World War was a transformative moment for universities in most belligerent states, few universities found themselves directly threatened by military action (with the notable exception of Belgian universities in August 1914). Moreover, none, to the best of my knowledge, found themselves unwitting participants in two different military affairs with conflicting aspirations. This was the experience of Trinity College Dublin in the period 1914-1922.


MS EX 02

British troops in Trinity College Dublin during the Easter Rising, 1916.

Image owned by, and reproduced here with the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin:

Exhibition material from the Long Room Exhibit ‘Dublin; The College and the City’ as compiled by the Manuscripts Department, Trinity College Library, October 2009

The example of Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592, exemplifies both the richness and the challenges of writing university history. At the turn of the twentieth century, TCD formed part of a wider academic world, with its lecturers travelling to international conferences, receiving honorary degrees from institutions elsewhere in Europe and North America, and its graduates frequently gaining employment elsewhere in the British Empire. This was exemplified by its tercentenary celebrations of 1892, where scholars came from across the world to honour one of Europe’s ancient universities.

In an Irish context, Trinity was seen as antithetical to resurgent nationalism which had grown in strength in the decades before 1914: it had, until 1793, excluded Catholics, and was still a strongly Anglican institution. It was initially resistant to the teaching of Irish, central to the nationalist cultural revival, and it was a politically unionist institution. Moreover, TCD’s graduates elected two representatives to the Westminster parliament who were unionist in outlook. Indeed, Sir Edward Carson, the unionist leader by 1912, represented Trinity College Dublin (Dublin University) in parliament between 1892 and 1918. Cultural nationalists and nationalist publications frequently cited the institution as exemplifying all that was wrong with British rule in Ireland. The Leader, an especially vituperative nationalist newspaper, frequently referred to Trinity as ‘the Parochial University’ and ‘England’s Faithful Garrison’.

The institution’s experiences in this period exemplify the tension between national and international concerns that mark the experiences of universities in this period, where academics and institutions (almost) universally supported the war and their respective national causes, leaving the appeals to the scholarly internationalism to one side while the conflict was ongoing.

The period of the First World War was transformative for universities around Europe. The conflict was a ‘total war’, meaning that states mobilised the entirety of national resources available to them in their bid to both sustain and win the war effort. For universities this meant that, as the war progressed, national governments increasingly leant on them for expertise and resources. Specialist learning, from the humanities to the hard sciences, was applied to war and its associated problems, with historians and philosophers writing propaganda, physicists and chemists applying their knowledge to weaponry, geographers and legal scholars planning the post-war settlement, while sociologists and economics managed the wartime division of labour. The historian and president of the Board of Education, H.A.L. Fisher, noted in 1917 that ‘the Professor and the Lecturer, the Research Assistant, and the Research Student have suddenly become powerful assets to the nation.’

The engagement of universities in the war was not restricted to academic staff. Students volunteered for service in great numbers, with over 3,000 Trinity students, staff, and alumni undertaking some sort of military service over the course of the war, leaving classrooms empty and universities deprived of student fees. Cumulatively, the university was deeply invested in the prosecution of the First World War. The population of the university dropped from an average of 1,200 before the war to a low of 721 by 1917-18, while students and teaching staff mostly swapped academic work for war work for the conflict’s duration.

Like their counterparts at universities elsewhere in Europe, TCD students volunteered for a myriad reasons: for adventure, out of a sense of solidarity with their fellow students, out of a belief in the righteousness of the cause. To this list can be added two more reasons: in 1914, the two major political factions in Ireland (unionist and constitutional nationalists: both of whom were led by Trinity alumni: Carson and John Redmond) were united in support for the war, and many Trinity students enlisted for this reason. Radical nationalism was still a minority movement at this time; indeed, in November 1914, Patrick Pearse, the man who would lead the Rising in 1916, was forbidden from speaking to the student Gaelic Society owing to his anti-recruitment activities. John Pentland Mahaffy, the Provost of TCD who numbered King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II amongst his acquaintances, did not want ‘a man called Pearse’ disseminating his ‘traitorous views’ at Trinity College Dublin.

The Easter Rising occurred in the middle of this unprecedented mobilization for war. Its leaders allied themselves to Germany and explicitly rejected the allied war effort. The Trinity community was steadfastly against the Rising and its goals and shocked by the devastation to property across Dublin’s inner city. However, the execution of the leaders of the Rising by the British authorities did much to lend popular support to the republican nationalism which grew in the years that followed, culminating in a War of Independence fought by nationalist insurgents and British military between 1919 and 1921.

Trinity College Dublin found itself caught between two major national movements. In a British context, the wartime efforts of universities transformed their relationship with the state. The establishment of the University Grants Committee in 1919 created a mechanism through which British universities could claim state funding from a centralized body, remuneration universities for their wartime privations and ensuring ongoing state funding of higher education and university research for the first time. To prepare the way for this, a Royal Commission sat in 1920, recommending a capital grant of £113,000 and an annual grant of £49,000 for the university.

In Ireland, the revolution established a new state which was unsympathetic to TCD, its unionist traditions, and its wartime record. Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty on 6 December 1921, Prime Minister David Lloyd George made it clear to TCD that all future financial claims should be taken up with the new Irish government, and the Free State government, in turn, made it clear that they would not honour the recommendations of the Royal Commission of 1920.

It was not until 1947 that Trinity College Dublin would receive a state grant for the first time from the Irish government. This followed decades of slow adjustment to the new political regime. While Trinity still displayed the trappings of the old regime – singing ‘God Save the King’ and flying the Union Jack into the late 1930s – it also attempted to build a solid working relationship with the new one, giving honorary degrees to leading figures in the Free State, such as the President of the Executive Council (and veteran of the 1916 Rising) W.T. Cosgrave, in 1926. The process of readjustment was fraught, contested by students and staff alike, and fought out in official ceremonials, student societies, and in the day-to-day business of the university.

Trinity College Dublin’s experiences a century ago are most likely unique in the history of universities. A.A. Luce, one of three fellows of TCD to fight in the Great War and one of the defenders of Trinity on 24 April 1916, commented in 1965 that ‘historians may say that Trinity backed the wrong horse’. Trinity’s case demonstrates the richness of university history and the tensions between the international connectedness of scholarship and its national and local environments.


Gategate*: How a Parking Dispute Changed University Governance

*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.