Until this year, Britain, perhaps uniquely, has lacked any significant student movement. During the past 15 years sections of British students have played an active, if not predominant role in the agitation over Suez, campaigns against racism and colonialism, and, most auspiciously, cnd. But none of this political activity reflected anything that could be termed, a specific student consciousness. Traditionally the ideal self-image of the student was the ‘undergraduate’—a debased version of the renaissance polymath, a gentleman taught by gentlemen, freed from prejudice by the austere pleasures of socratic debate. Collective student consciousness was precluded by such a schema. The liberal philosophy of academic freedom and the non-vocational university fused both teacher and taught in the abstract and unfettered quest for wisdom. Even the concept ‘student union’ was confiscated by liberal academic terminology to mean either nursery training in the rhetorical skills of parliamentary repartee or cheap passes to foreign museums and youth hostelling in southern climes.

The events at the lse have at last signalled the beginnings of the demystification of the undergraduate complex. For the first time students have shown unprecedented collective solidarity in their role as students. The lse affair was the first occasion in Britain in which a student union has been used as a corporate instrument against the arbitrary powers of academic staff. The British student, belatedly, has become part of the international typology of militant student action.

Since 1954 important structural changes have taken place in the British university system, without which the complete and militant solidarity of students at the lse would hardly have been conceivable. The greatest single factor has been the increased number of students engaged in higher education. Before the second World War the number of students never rose above 70,000, but the pace of expansion began to increase after the war by 1954–55 the number had risen to 122,000. This was still insignificant beside the acceleration of expansion in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. By 1962–63 the numbers had risen to 216,000. Only three years later (1965–66) the numbers had gone above 300,000, and according to the annual report of the ministry of Education for 1966, all targets for student numbers set in the Robbins Report had so far been exceeded.

Such dramatic increases can only be seen in their proper perspective when set in counterpoint to a consistent record of government parsimony. Successive governments whilst sanctioning university expansion, have not been prepared to allocate proportionate increases in expenditure. The result has been a growing ratio of students to teachers and the physical overcrowding of students in university buildings. At the lse for instance a library built to accommodate 900 students is now supposed to house 3,500. Even more scandalous has been the unwillingness of governments to raise student grants in proportion to the rise of prices. The difference is supposed to be met by parents but there is no legal means of forcing them to do so. Nor is it ever made really clear whether student grants are intended simply for the term time or for the whole year—thus many parents claim to have fulfilled their obligations simply by providing room and keep for students in vacations. The result is that students who wish to avoid financial blackmail by their parents, even those paid the maximum grant, can now, most accurately be included in the phenomenon of ‘new poverty’ discussed by Robin Blackburn (nlr 42). Many students live on £6 per week, of which £3 goes on rent—by no stretch of the imagination can they be called ‘the pampered products of the welfare state.’ This situation is aggravated by many other anomalies: the highest grants tend not to go to people in London or other large cities without residential universities, but to Oxford and Cambridge where costs are marginally lower and credit facilities are much greater. Again for some unexplained reason many students in training colleges, art schools and cats get lower grants than those reading for degrees.

The rise in the number of students reflects also a profound change in their social situation. Before the Second World War students engaged in higher education only constituted 2·7 per cent of their age group. By 1967, however, this proportion had risen to 11 per cent. Students are still an elite group, but their social destination has shifted. The University no longer provides the almost automatic entrance into an elite professional class. Now, a much larger and less exclusive social strata demands degree qualification. The pre-war university preeminently prepared its members for law, medicine, church or civil service. In the modern university the predominant goals of students are bifurcated between industry and further academic research. This changing social function of the university is partly reflected in the growth of new subjects—in particular sociology, a discipline still socially unmoored from professional needs. It is significant that much of the leadership in the lse revolt came from students in the sociology faculty.