In which The Author transcribes an ancient manuscript for a modern audience
Back in October 1984, I embarked on my first abortive venture into the world of Higher Education. I was studying Applied Biology at Brunel University. It’s as far west in London as it’s possible to get without falling in the Grand Union Canal. At the Freshers’ Fair, we fresh-faced provincial kids were given our comprehensive guide to London life – the Time Out Student Guide.
When I started working on my long-abandoned semi-autobiographical novel, I was using the locations I knew from that period in London. For this reason, I decided to hold on to the guide. I could make sure that I didn’t name-check closed pubs or get my characters to pay more than necessary for a bus trip across town. I kept it for years and years. I never thought it would come in handy for any other reason.
At the time, the President of the National Union of Students was a young-ish man named Phil Woolas. He gave an interview to the Time Out Student Guide. I expect after this interval of time he’s forgotten all about it. Fortunately for him, his supporters, his opponents, and the many tens of thousands of students now facing the biggest shake-up in higher education funding since the abolition of the grant system, I’ve still got my copy. Let’s see what it said, in full:
The first thing that Phil Woolas did on July 1 1984 – the date he took over the presidency of the NUS – was to write to Keith Joseph. He sent him a copy of NUS’s report ‘Undergraduate Income and Expenditure’, a detailed immaculately researched document, which had just been released to the Press, and which proves – among other things – that the majority of students don’t have enough to live on. The letter asked for a meeting to discuss the report’s findings.
‘I’ll get a letter in about ten days’ time saying “I’ve referred the matter to my Junior Minister, I understand you’ve met him”. My response to that will be to write to Margaret Thatcher instead’, he elaborated, ‘we just keep on at them’.
The NUS Executive are proud of the fact that Phil, their 1984–5 President, comes from a working-class background. Born in Scunthorpe, the son of a local steel-worker, he’s sampled a variety of educational establishments. He got his ‘O’ levels at Walton Lane Comprehensive (in Nelson, Lancashire, where his parents moved when he was a child); his ‘A’ levels at Nelson & Colne College of Further Education and his degree (Second Class Honours: Philosophy) at Manchester University. Technically, he’s still a student, although he’s been working for NUS for two years. He’s doing a part-time postgraduate MA course from Manchester in Logic and Scientific Method.
Phil first came to London in 1982. He doesn’t love the place. ‘The first impression you get is of its size; the second is the expense of living here and the third is the anonymity – the “faceless Smoke”, as it were.
‘I’d finished work at Manchester, but I wasn’t getting a grant to do the MA, so I hadn’t got any money. Catch 22 is that you can’t get your dole until you’ve got an address, but you can’t get somewhere to live until you’ve got some money to go and look. So you get stuck sleeping on peoples’ floors and if those people are claiming, you can’t claim too. That happened to me and it took me four months to find a place.’
Involvement in student politics is what brought Phil here. He came as an elected member of NUS’s National Committee after some six years or so of working for the student movement in Lancashire. His active participation in student politics had an abrupt beginning when he was doing ‘A’ levels.
‘Nelson has an immigrant population of about 56%. When I was at college there, the Ugandan Asians were coming in and there was a lot of racial tension, which was erupting in violence in the classrooms, as well as in the streets. It was really nasty. Then the National Front got organised there, and some of us set up an Anti-Nazi League through the students’ union.’
The then Vice President of NUS, who visited the FE College union to give a talk, set him on the road to full-time involvement. ‘He spoke to me afterwards and told me I should get involved. I agreed. I thought it was worth while [sic] and good fun, and I’ve been going ever since.’
Why did he stand for President? Having been elected member of the National Committee for one year, and Treasurer for the best part of another, he’d observed the NUS at close quarters and felt motivated. ‘I want to help make the NUS more relevant to Students’ Unions; I want it to be the first port of call for any students’ union officer with a query, rather than a last resort for help with serious problems.’
He also feels that NUS are in a position to help influence social change. Economic circumstances are forcing students to keep their heads in their books at the moment and to go all out for what they can get. Yet overwhelming support for NUS campaigns and massive opposition to cruise missiles – as evidenced by members’ responses to NUS surveys – shows that feelings among the student movement are as strong as they have ever been. The result of this conflict is anger and cynicism.
Phil believes that these feelings should be harnessed. ‘Students have traditionally been pushers for change and for justice. Now, they’re being pushed back into the classroom and made to keep their views bottled up. The NUS has to encourage them to be more vociferous and more involved in the world outside the classroom.
‘In addition, today’s students aren’t all studying for degrees. Our members range from 16-year-old youth trainees from areas of high unemployment to 18-year olds at sixth-form colleges to day-release and part-time students to mature students. It’s NUS’s job to hold them together as a body, and one way it can do that is by acting as a force for social change.’
Phil is a Labour Party supporter and a member of the Labour Group. His decision to stand came when the Labour Group told him they wanted him to do so. The issues on which the campaign was fought revolved around the question of NUS’s viability as a national student organisation.
First, there was the question of the way NUS should conduct their campaigns. The traditional techniques – the Government announces an intention; the NUS oppose it by lobbying MPs, then organising demonstrations – were felt by many people to be outdated.
On the principal [sic] that it’s more effective to decide what’s wanted and then to use a variety of means to get it, rather than to try to respond to the Government head-on, Phil and his supporters organised a festival, rallies and debates. Up-to-date tactics would, they figured, establish NUS’s credibility and thus could be used as the platform for building up support for the issues of student grants, housing and educational standards. Their slogans were: ‘Postive, not Responsive’ and ‘Break Pessimism, not Promises’.
THE YEAR AHEAD
During 1984/5 it’s Phil Woolas’ job to implement the ‘New Deal Campaign’ started by Neil Stewart, last year’s President. This consists of a package of demands, aimed at improving grants and widening access to financial concessions, such as Housing Benefit, the accommodation situation and facilities in colleges.
The basic ideas behind this idea are to make students financially independent (‘far too many students are completely dependent on their parents’) increase the choice that students have (‘students can’t choose the options on their courses, they can’t choose where to live’) and to halt the erosion of academic standards caused by factors such as unqualified teachers, and overcrowded classrooms.
Phil thinks he starts with a few advantages. First, he’s sure that the message that today’s students are no longer the flamboyant drop-outs of the ’60s has been received and understood.
Second, the academic establishment is solidly behind him. Last year, while NUS were pushing for a 10% rise in student grants (a figure they considered realistic, rather than ideal), the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals asked the Government for a rise of 22% – an unprecedented situation.
Like the President he has succeeded, Phil, together with his colleagues on the NUS Executive, inherit a war against a rapid erosion of their members’ standard of living and of academic standards. And they know from past experience that a victory in a battle can gain them no advantage. For example, last year’s Executive took the issue of student travel awards to the Social Security Commission, and won, only to be faced a few months later, with a Government ruling that has effectively wiped out students’ rights to claim travelling expenses.
Phil also wants to tackle the issue of Government interference in academic freedom, as exemplified by their attack on the Open University’s introduction of a course in economics with an anti-monetarist bias. ‘Academic freedom is a crucially important issue, but it’s less tangible than some of the other problems we’ve got to deal with.’
A DAY IN THE LIFE
I asked Phil Woolas what his average day is like. ‘The workload’s over-whelming [sic] – I’ve got to get glasses and I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks. It’s interesting because it’s varied and you meet so many people. Even before I took over I’d visited every university in the country and met nine Cabinet Ministers and still more trades union leaders. In a day you’ll talk to student leaders from abroad, try to get a grant for somebody at Highbury Tech and a common room for students in Peterborough. But it gets unreal. You have plenty of assistance, but it’s still meetings for half the afternoon, Time Out at 4 o’clock, somebody else at five …’
Anyway, that’s ancient history now. Mr Woolas’ political career continues to the present day, and his views on student funding have mutated in that time. Still, as that great political philosopher Groucho Marx once observed: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’