This is the first in a series of guest posts by Sarah Webster, based on her fascinating PhD research into British student activism since 1945.
Manchester has a reputation as the home of radical politics and ideas. That history includes protest and activism by the city’s university and college students. These blog posts will outline examples of race-related activism by University of Manchester (UoM) students in the twentieth century. Their activism has encompassed opposition to racist regimes in southern Africa, anti-fascist activism and campaigns on global poverty. This first post focuses on activism and support for international students in Manchester after 1945.
Accommodation for International Students
In the fifties and sixties, articles appeared in the student press that reported concerns about racism faced by international students in securing non-university accommodation. Shared student houses were not yet an established practice with most students renting rooms as lodgers. International students reported finding that vacancies were suddenly filled when they arrived to view rooms. A few recounted noticing twitching curtains and front doors not opened when they knocked. Most students faced low quality housing off campus, but international students bore the worst squalor and neglect with landlords seeking to exploit their relative vulnerability.
In 1962, the University of Manchester Lodgings Officer admitted having problems finding accommodation for international students. As well as overt racial prejudice, the Lodgings Officer cited concerns about food and heating as reasons given for refusing international students, especially those from Africa, India and Asia. Accommodation issues was so common that the Economics Faculty opened their own housing for international students in the early sixties.
British students were appalled, but seem to have been unsure how to tackle the obvious racism. The Union had their own accommodation service, but it primarily offered advice and does not seem to have attempted to challenge landlord racism. UoM did support a motion at NUS Council demanding universities remove racist landlords from their accommodation lists. The motion fell, but it indicates that students wanted a clear expression from their universities that racism towards international students was unacceptable.
By the mid-seventies, students had upped their game. In October 1975, Manchester Polytechnic were revealed to be charging international students double the accommodation fees paid by British students. The clearly discriminatory policy incensed local students, with UoM students joining a picket of the Polytechnic’s Governors meeting. The policy disappeared; it seems that the Polytechnic’s authorities were worried about a sustained campaign. A similar policy was allegedly scrapped by UoM in around 1972, when students threatened rent strikes in response to the proposals.
Tuition Fees for International Students
In 1967, the government increased international student fees to £250 (from £180), applying the increase to enrolled students and new entrants. At UoM, British and international students established an Overseas Student Action Committee, who organised a lecture boycott and marches to demonstrate their united opposition. They received staff support with Vice Chancellor Mansfield Cooper declaring that “no-one engaged in the pursuit of knowledge is a foreigner”. Understanding higher education as a social good for all, students believed that anyone should be able to participate in university life and recognised that high fees excluded many potential BME international students. Students did not describe the fee hike as racist, but did frame it as exclusionary, favouring wealthy and government sponsored students over those from poorer families and developing states.
Resisting Fee Increases
The Overseas Action Committee remained active into the late seventies. A Conservative government quota on international student numbers and more fee increases provoked further protests. Greater tactical radicalism emerged in the seventies with students organising five campus occupations alongside marches, pickets and sit-ins. In academic year 1979/80, 150 international students staged a fee strike (refused to pay their tuition fees), risking their education to protest increase fees. UoM students saw limits on international student numbers via higher fees and quotas as a manipulation of immigration statistics designed to pander anti-immigration sentiments. For them, the policies were essentially racist as they excluded BME international students from British higher education for being international students.
UoM students have long found racism abhorrent; they have been vocally anti-fascist and anti-racist since the forties. It is clear though that they became more conscious of societal and institutional discrimination faced by international students. They engage in activism alongside international students, because they see themselves as a community of scholars. They find the exclusion of potential students difficult to reconcile with a belief that higher education should be open to all.
The ‘I’m Not Welcome’ campaign, launched by UoM students in 2013, highlights how visa restrictions, high fees and UKBA monitoring via universities leaves many feeling alienated and unwelcome on British campuses. Their activism is part of a historical trend that seeks to ensure the full inclusion of international students at Manchester.
Sarah’s research has focused on the University of Manchester student press. The University of Manchester Library holds a nearly complete collection of the University’s official student newspapers, as well as an impressive collection of other student publications, which provide a rich source of information on all aspects of the student experience in Manchester. Visit the History and Heritage webpages for more information.