Chapter text, Philippa Lyon
The build-up of frustration and discontent among the student body in 1968 relates in many ways to the issues of teaching methods and curricular relevance touched upon in the previous chapter. At this time, many students felt that a number of approaches to teaching at the Brighton College of Art were out of date. They were critical of what they perceived to be a wasteful under-use of equipment and complained of the inadequacy of the academic structures in place, particularly the lack of student representation. By June 1968, students were putting ‘demands’ to the Principal, Raymond Cowern, for the restructuring of courses and the reorganisation of departments.
Communication between the students and the senior management of the college during this period became extremely tense and difficult. Evidence of the exchange of views and outcomes of numerous meetings between students and senior management can be seen in internal correspondence, local and national newspaper articles and Students’ Union magazines from the second half of 1968. Events unfolded quickly, demands were expressed in urgent terms and the atmosphere was rife with tension. Discussions were fraught with mistrust and accusations of disruptive and authoritarian behaviour respectively; for all parties the issues at stake were serious and the conduct of the protest itself highly significant. On the 21 June 1968 the dispute came to a head when the local education authority closed the college for a day, and the students began to explore the possibility of involving the High Court to intervene. In a meeting with key student representatives, the Director of Education in Brighton Local Education Authority, W G Stone, referred the students back to the College with their concerns, an act which focused renewed attention on the Principal’s authority. The college was reopened and, as the disruption subsided, subsequent discussions concentrated on the matters of representation, participation and academic direction.
The student revolution is an important part of the history of the Brighton School of Art, and arguably one that had lasting consequences. For this reason the sequence of events from protests and discussions to the college closure in 1968, is summarised in this chapter and some of the issues and implications explored. However, it is important to understand that this episode was not exclusive to Brighton as an institution, but that it related to a wider context of student and youth politics and activism in the 1960s, and to the pressures towards social and educational change more broadly.
Whilst a range of specific, institutional and policy-related issues ranging from the quality of facilities to educational relevance were key elements in the student protests of 1968, the actions need also to be seen as relating to the circulation of political and philosophical idealism of the time. A surge of interest in global politics was expressed, for example, in the vociferous peace campaigns against the Vietnam War and in the demonstrations against nuclear proliferation. In a society seen as becoming noticeably wealthier, and in which technological advances were seen as potentially loosening the grip of manual labour on the masses and creating new opportunities for leisure, there was a great deal of interest in the ideas of personal freedom and self realisation, as well as protest against establishment values and authoritarianism. To some extent, the ferment in student politics of this period, particularly among students of art and design, can be seen as emerging from the extremely potent but potentially contradictory ideological influences of individualism, particularly the importance of individual creative expression, and collectivism as a means of changing the existing order.
The events at Brighton in June 1968, then, did not emerge in isolation. A spirit of protest had been boiling over already in that year, perhaps most notoriously in Paris, where students at the Sorbonne and a number of the lycées had been involved in widely reported street riots, sit-ins and university occupations. Whilst there were many different interest groups and political affiliations involved, making it unhelpful to categorise the aims of these demonstrations too neatly, the desire to shake up a conservative establishment, voice strong objections to the negative impact of industrialised work processes and fight for more effective participatory democracy were common threads. These concerns were also central to trades unions, whose demonstrations at times overlapped or connected with those of the students.
In the UK, student protest emerged especially dramatically at the Hornsey College of Art in London. Frustrations about new course structures and requirements, lack of relevance to contemporary society, limited or even inadequate facilities and distant, inaccessible management and decision-making processes had been transformed into action. Here, the introduction of the Diploma in Art and Design, with its GCE entrance qualification, was seen as an attempted “assimilation of the bohemians into conventional higher education; and, beyond this, into the society which determines the form of this Higher Education” Students were extremely sensitive to the analogous relationships between educational and social structures, and made explicit connections between class and educational divides: as the protest developed, comments were made that the division evident between students on Diploma and Vocational courses ‘increasingly reflects the class-structure of society outside.’ Resistance to accepting a pre-determined place in this class structure, and impatience towards the standards and assumptions held by the older generation, are also evident in the following quotation from an irate worker and a Hornsey protester’s riposte:
‘Why do not you two-a-penny, feather-bedded students get back to your hovels from whence you were pupped. We workers do not pay out huge sums of money from our pay to school useless spivs and drones. Clear out! And make way for decent citizens.’
(Postcard sent to Hornsey, June 1968)
‘Daily work is a struggle, and few workers can possibly afford personal involvement; from the perspective of work imposed by society and absorbed by the worker himself it can only appear as a luxury, as the indecent attitude of a layabout. We protest against the protestant, clean, decent, self-denying, miserable glorification of work. I believe that this hope to work for one’s living by living in one’s work is a reason why many of us choose to go to art school.This is why we really kick when our hopes are frustrated and we find the same alienation forced upon us as upon our parents: the alienation from which we were trying to escape.’
The Hornsey Affair, Students and staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969
In May 1968, Hornsey College of Art was occupied by students, who barred the Principal from his office and ran a campaign for change from the occupied buildings. Actions were also undertaken at the Guildford School of Art and the College of Education, amongst other institutions.
In considering the events of June 1968 at the Brighton College of Art, questions of terminology and categorisation are inevitably faced. Was the sequence of events leading to the college closure best seen as the eruption of untypical disquiet among a proportion of the students and staff? Were these events generated by a small core of individuals bent primarily on wielding some influence and taking others with them? Or was the whole episode the result of a groundswell of strongly-held views and desires to create lasting change in the conditions at the college and the system of education in operation: was it, that is to say, a kind of ‘revolution’? The connotations of these different descriptions are diverse and complex.
It might well be argued that to call the events of 1968 a period of ‘unrest’ is a quietist, conservative historical maneouvre, playing down the seriousness of the dispute and its significance in the development of policy, student identity and the impact on many of the individuals involved. The term ‘revolution’, a more emotive term, might appear no less problematic, yet it seems to capture better the mood of the time. If this seems a dramatic use of language to those studying and working in higher eduction today, this is perhaps precisely the point. For those caught up in the events of 1968, at Brighton and elsewhere, the issues at stake were fundamental, far-reaching, and potentially life-changing. Raymond Cowern, the Principal in the thick of the ‘revolution’ at Brighton, ambivalently commented on his perception that there was both progressive idealism and a kind of viral mutiny behind the events he attempted to deal with:
‘…The disaffection which started at Hornsey has spread, most ably propogated over a national network. Most Colleges resisted. Several, as was bound to happen, became involved: Birmingham, Croydon, Guildford, Brighton and others to a lesser extent. In these the posturings of student power have been seen, its attitudes experienced, its heady dictates listened to in our halls and refectories, studios and lecture rooms. Endless open-ended debate, often futile and self-defeating, but with it all some good sense, some genuine idealism, some real desire for meaningful involvement, a new caring for what Art and Design education is about and for where it is going.’
Chairman R Cowern’s address to the Association of Art Institutions Conference 15 – 17 July 1968.
To some extent, in 1968 Brighton College of Art had a fairly tight knit student community. The total number of students was small (593 full-time and 1,223 part-time, according to the minutes of evidence, 19 March 1969, p388) and the size and shape of the building, and the close proximity of teaching and social space made it possible for students to mix easily with each other. Several facilities (printmaking; the photographic unit) had to be shared by students in different disciplines, although not always entirely smoothly. In the words of one student, there was a ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere.
Between students and staff, the situation was complex. Whilst individual members of staff (59 full-time and 159 part-time) could give students a great deal of time and attention, and much teaching took place through one to one tutorials or direct feedback in the studio, there were also huge gulfs in communication. In Complementary Studies, which had begun to be constructed by some as the academic reification of the DipAD course (see discussions in the chapter on art history and complementary studies), teaching staff members were drawing on very different cultural references to those their students were familiar with. As at Hornsey, many Brighton College of Art students felt distanced and alienated from a omplementary studies component that they perceived as occupying a substantial portion of the teaching week, rigidly fixed in the timetable. Furthermore it was delivered by staff, some of whom did not to share the students’ interests in the future direction of art and design, and the ever-increasing creative possibilities of technology. The possibilities for expressing such opinions, or being party to discussions about curriculum or educational policy in general, seemed few.
‘Students had little formal opportunity to give voice to their concerns about courses or air their views generally. They were not represented on any committees. There were some heads who thought that students had nothing to contribute. There was trouble brewing among the students regarding the art history/complementary studies element of the courses. There was a view that the 20 per cent element of the course was wagging the tail of the 80 per cent ‘chief’ or ‘main studies’ (the name given to practical work at the time, as opposed to theoretical). Some believed that theory and practice should be integrated more, rather than seen as separate entities. Many sought a more flexible use of the workshops.’
Extract from John Vernon Lord’s chapter, ‘Brighton College of Art in the 1960s’
Among the staff, too, tensions existed between those with different political affiliations. A number of lecturers were strongly committed to left-wing groups and ideologies, such as the Socialist John Biggs and the Communist Party member Ray Watkinson, who organised trips of like-minded students to the Communist Art School in London. Yet even among the group of adherents to Communism, schisms were developing as further revelations about the actions of Stalin lead some to feel a sense of betrayal, and many others on the staff held different political sympathies or had no particular allegiance to an overarching ideology. For staff and students alike, it is possible to see from the documentary evidence referred to in the next section that the principles most frequently cited were the importance of representation and participation within the institution, and the need for more flexible and cooperative academic structures to enable students to give full rein to their creativity. The following section reviews briefly how the events unfolded.
A memorandum from students is issued and distributed widely throughout the College. This raises issues of: student participation; the realisation of staff and student ‘potential’; the relationship between staff and student cooperation and creativity; and the levels of student interest in their studies.
On the national scale, a meeting of art college representatives is convened at the Royal College of Art to discuss the protests and student-led events happening up and down the country. The President of the Students’ Union at Brighton, David Edgar Booth, attends.
At Brighton College of Art, students issue a list of seven demands. Following a student-staff meeting, this becomes the following eight points:
’i The existing type of visual education is not relevant to the present
requirements of society.
ii We believe that increased liaison, both within and between departments, would contribute to a fuller use of facilities.
iii We demand a service department as a technical aid, without a teaching function, to be open to all students.
iv We demand that the art college be considered as an active cultural centre, that will be open to the public, seven days per week.
v We demand that the professional capacity of the staff be recognised; they should not be required to act as class-room teachers.
vi We demand that the structure of all courses should be re-considered, immediately student participation is achieved
vii We demand that immediate consideration be given to the problem of Complementary Studies, which in our view is in urgent need of reform.
viii We believe that the course structure does not take full account of the calibre of the students.
These eight points will not, and cannot, be rectified until there is equal student representation on the Board of Governors and on all boards of study’.
A student meeting supports a motion to form an organization as a ‘medium of consensus of student opinion’.
Seminars are set up around the College to discuss issues relating to the protest.
The interim Board of Studies for Graphic Design meets to explore principles for the education of graphic designers. Two working parties are set up, one to establish principles for the Dip AD Graphic Design, the other for the Vocational courses in Graphic Design.
A fine art staff meeting discusses the students’ demands. Responses to each of the students’ points (see above) are agreed and circulated around the college. Most of the issues receive support: one small point of departure being the statement that the course structure is not taking into ‘full account .. the calibre of the students’. Staff comment that it would be better to view this issue as a debating point rather than an action to be addressed urgently, and the students withdraw that statement.
The fine art staff present at the meeting support the proposal that staff should have relevant and effective representation on the board of governors, the academic board and the boards of studies. They agree an amended form of the students’ demand for equal participation, stating that they should have ‘relevant and effective’ representation on the three key boards. They add that staff representatives should be elected by staff, and students by students.
The Principal, R Cowern, issues an open statement in which he says, ‘I wish to make it clear that the formulation of effective academic policy is not possible under duress. There seems to be an impression that I can make decisions in such matters without full and proper consultation. This I am not able to do.’
He concludes with an invitation for a deputation of two or three students to meet the governors. An open meeting of staff and students is held in which the statement is read out. A motion is carried requiring the Principal to leave the meeting, and discussion of the statement follows, with the students concluding that he was choosing not to use powers he possessed to institute change. Four students are elected to present the student case to the college governors: Martin Newman, Peter Roach, Kathy Buxton and Hugh Davies.
A student publicity department is formed to help with the circulation of information.
The points raised by the fine art staff meeting of the 12June are put to all other members of staff of Brighton College of Art (excepting heads of department) in a piece of correspondence, ‘Staff Document 1’, featuring a voting slip. This is circulated to canvas further support. A letter is then sent to the principal from ‘all staff’, which states that:
‘We cannot accept your statement that it is beyond your power to effect immediate changes in the proposed structure of the Academic Board and the Boards of Study with relevant, effective student representation on these Boards, and we see no reason why these should not be in effective operation by the end of next week.’
A document is circulated which outlines what is meant by ‘militant action’. This emphasises the constructive nature of such action, and cites as examples the showing of films, the exhibiting of work and the holding of poetry readings, meetings and seminars.
A jointly chaired meeting is held between governors, staff and students. One of the governors, the East Sussex County Art Advisor, announces that it is the principal who has power to grant representation (rather than the local authority). This statement, addressing one of the most contentious issues under debate, has a dramatic effect on all parties. Tempers rise, with mention being made of ‘student agitators’.
Meetings and discussions continue across the college, particularly on the issues of exactly what was needed for the ‘relevant’ and ‘effective’ representation of students, and how complementary studies could be altered to make it more flexible, proportionate, integrated and engaging to students.
R Cowern issues a statement indicating willingness to consider the possibilities for student representation. The governors invite staff and students to elect representatives to meet them to discuss ‘constitutional details involved in the establishment’ of representative bodies.
R Cowern issues a letter to all staff in the college from himself and the Director of Education, concerning ‘fulfilment of the duties’ for which they are employed. This asks all members of staff ‘on receipt of this letter to inform the Principal in writing, as a matter of urgency, whether they are or are not prepared to carry out their normal teaching and other duties under the Principal’s direction.’
A statement from W Stone, the Director of Education, states that the College ‘will not open today’ given that the ‘general atmosphere in the College has deteriorated and a number of incidents of indiscipline have occurred.
The Students’ Union responds angrily, stating that this action has ‘destroyed all good will worked so hard for by the governors, staff and students’.
The College is reopened and W Stone circulates a statement to the effect that ‘The Governors are in sympathy with the students’ wish for effective representation on relevant College bodies.’ Discussions are welcomed, the statement goes on to say, but no guarantees can be given.
Despite the development of a more conciliatory approach by the end of June 1968 and a lessening sense of urgency in the students’ demands the issues were, unsurprisingly, not instantly resolved. In September 1968, the Students’ Union (SU) magazine Baccus reported on the state of student disputes around the country, alongside the more typical array of announcements about social events (such as the opening of the Friday Night Club in the Basement), lectures, SU appointments and news items. Referring to ‘Morade’, the national Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education, events and discussions in each significantly affected college were summarized. In addition, correspondence between the SU president and principal at Brighton was published, showing the continued tensions about the precise form and extent of student representation.
Whilst progress was made on some issues, with student representatives taking up their places on boards of study, a visit by a sub-committee of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education and Science in March 1969 resulted in an aggravation of the wounds still evident from the previous year’s events. Many of those called as witnesses to give evidence to the sub-committee felt that it had failed to engage fully with the problems. Statements given had covered status differences between full-time, part-time and junior staff, job prospects for students, continuing differences of opinion about student representation, particularly on the governing body, and the overall causes for the ‘militant’ nature of the revolution. With these sorts of questions being raised again, students returned anew to their frustrations about participation and particularly to their complaints about complementary studies and educational relevance. In the face of this renewed sally, Raymond Cowern opened up the issue of complementary studies for a far fuller consultation, inviting students to set up working parties and submit proposals on how art history and complementary studies might be changed to meet student needs better.
The student revolution at Brighton had an impact, for some a painfully significant impact, on many individuals. Yet it also had a key role to play in the shift towards the participation of students as a normal and routine part of institutional life and academic decision-making. On a broader level, the combined impact of the student actions in this period was felt on the national policy-making stage, and across the management levels of art colleges, many of which were beginning to prepare for the change to polytechnic status. An article in The Observer in October 1968 encapsulated the extent to which student protests had entered into the public’s consciousness:
‘Less than six months ago, few members of the general public had the slightest idea of what went on in art schools. Many people, including members of the educational establishment, saw their inhabitants as slightly sordid drop-outs, living in backstreet bed-sitters heated by one bar of an electric fire.
Today, awareness is gradually dawning that art students (there are some 23,000 of them in the country) do more than daub and chisel; that, through their activities in the design field, they are the people who determine the shape and feel of the things we use in our daily lives.’
Derek Henry, who began studying Graphic Design at Brighton of College of Art in 1967, remembered how tight-knit the college community was, and how the Basement was a key location in the initial phase of the Brighton student revolution.
‘Without doubt my most memorable time at the art school took place in June 1968 when we decided to act as a student body to remedy what we experienced as a rather conservative and backward educational environment. In their panic to stop what seemed to be an almost anarchic student reaction the authorities locked us out of the college.
I still remember with amazement the meeting we had in a Brighton pub; once the student activists managed to instigate proceedings that would lead to a high court injunction against the illegal lock out. It was an unusual time, one that I will never forget.
The moderate student activists in the student union came to the fore in the ensuing debate. We were very proud of our achievements and many new procedures, such as having student representatives on boards of study, were negotiated by the union for the first time in the history of the college.’