Helen Fisher, Archivist in Special Collections at the Cadbury Research Library, explores the 1968 student protests on campus.
1968 was a year of student protest across the world. It also saw a week-long period of direct action by University of Birmingham students who wanted a greater say in how the University was run. 50 years later, the Cadbury Research Library is holding an exhibition of archive material of the occupation of the Great Hall and offices in the Aston Webb building.
The unrest was the result of the perceived failure by the University to accept the demands of the Guild of Students for students to be represented on University committees such as Council and Senate. These demands had been made in a Guild report entitled 'The Student Role', issued in February 1968.
Although the report was generally well received, the University authorities had refused to meet the demands in full, and did not agree to a student presence on some University committees. Many students were frustrated by this, and also felt that the changes that had been agreed were happening too slowly. Following a general meeting at the end of October 1968, the Guild stated that unless the demands in 'The Student Role' were met in full by 27 November, direct action would follow.
On the day after the deadline, since Council had not conceded to all that the students were demanding, protestors took possession of the entrance to the Aston Webb building and the Great Hall.
Redbrick, 27 November 1968
The front page of the student newspaper announcing the start of direct action and the occupation of the Great Hall and administrative offices in Aston Webb, if the demands of the Guild Executive were not agreed by University Council.
Agenda and recommendations of Guild of Students EGM, 29 October 1968
Agenda and recommendations of Emergency General Meeting of the Guild of Undergraduates which demanded acceptance of the 'Student Role' by the University authorities, and the establishment of a University Commission to examine student representation on University Committees.
The occupation begins, 27 November 1968
Programme of action of the Ad Hoc Group, 8 November 1968
This leaflet sets out the proposals of the Ad Hoc Group, representing students who wanted the University to make changes in response to the recommendations set out in the 'Student Role' and were prepared to take direct action if change was not implemented.
The start of the protests, 8 November 1968
A leaflet encouraging students to take part in a two-day 'Teach In' to share idea and opinions about organisational change with other members of the University in a constructive way.
Students congregate in the Great Hall of Aston Webb
An official student message to the media
A notice issued by students occupying the administrative offices in Aston Webb, typed on headed paper from the Vice-Chancellor's office, confirming the student takeover of the University telephone switchboard, and correcting inaccuracies in local news reports.
Students conduct a sit-down protest outside the Vice-Chancellor's office
The University gives its perspective, 30 November 1968
A report in The Observer on events of the occupation from the perspective of the University authorities.
Student protesters print off posters
The University switchboard
At one point in the protests students attempted to take over the University switchboards, attracting national media attention.
A different perspective
The Daily Mirror news article on the attempted takeover of the telephone exchange.
The sit-in continues, 4 December 1968
A Redbrick article reporting the continuation of the occupation following a vote by Guild Council, overturning the result of a vote at an Emergency General Meeting of the Guild to end the occupation.
The end of the sit-in, 5 December 1968
Photograph of the mass meeting which voted to end the occupation 5 December 1968, taken by the Library Photographer.
The Registrar responds, 11 December 1968
A letter printed in the Birmingham Post by the Registrar, refuting a statement about the events of the sit-in that had previously been printed in the newspaper in a letter supporting the students’ views.
During the week of direct action, leaflets, memoranda, and posters were used by both students and staff to announce meetings, provide commentary on events, and to communicate policies. There was also extensive coverage in the local and national press. These documents make clear that there were a number of competing perspectives.
The University authorities were keen to bring the occupation to an end, but many members of academic staff, especially in Arts and Social Sciences, were broadly supportive of the students' aims. Some staff, particularly in Science and Engineering, and in the Medical School, strongly opposed the protest. Press coverage was almost entirely negative.
Some students also disagreed with direct action, while others initially supported it. As the occupation continued it became more obvious that the student body was divided and that a growing number of students wanted to end the protest and resume negotiations with the University.
After a majority of students voted to end the occupation at a mass outdoor meeting on campus on 5 December, the University Senate announced it would set up an ad hoc committee to discuss University reforms with students. The following review led to an agreement between the Guild and University that saw full student membership of a number of University committees.
*Images used with permission from the Cadbury Research Library and the Birmingham Post and Mail
Explore the protests
You can see more photographs and written material from the protests at the current exhibition in the Cadbury Research Library in Muirhead Tower, or visit the Cadbury Research Library's Flickr album.