Time was when students were students and leading lights in the National Union of Students later went on to become Labour ministers, it having been most unlikely that they would ever be found in a Conservative government.
Pre-dating my time as a student, Jack Straw was NUS president. A recollection of him from that era was of some barney or other at the LSE, which was typically at the centre of student barneys. When I did become a student, an NUS president was Charles Clarke, of whom I still have the photographic evidence of his leading a march in London, one that I took part in - sort of. I can't remember what the march was in aid of and I can't honestly recall having done any actual marching. But the purpose was rarely that important. A march in London was a good excuse for whole bunches of mates to head down from the north in a convey of coaches, having made sure that there was a more than ample supply of cold drinks. It was like we were all heading off for a football match.
When not marching, there were other student-action means of diversion from studying. One was the sit-in, otherwise known as the occupation. The reason for there having been an occupation when I was at university has faded from the memory. It lasted for several days, perhaps as long as a fortnight. Sanitary conditions inside the occupied administration building deteriorated. Eventually, the police stormed in - they crashed their way through from the adjoining library. The result of all this was that five students, including the president and vice-president of the university's students union, were expelled. Charles Clarke, who was then president-elect of the NUS, said that "bully boy tactics to intimidate or smash us" will not be tolerated.
The expulsions were overturned, they having been an ultimate sanction that was rarely used in an era when, as one looks back and realises, the right to protest was something to be cherished, because it didn't exist everywhere. In Spain, expulsion of students wasn't a matter for an individual university. There was a law for it.
In 1954, Franco approved a university discipline regulation that is only now going to be repealed. This regulation allowed expulsion, either temporary or permanent, for, among other things, protesting against the Catholic religion and morals, against the principles and institutions of the state, and insulting, offending or showing insubordination to academic authorities. It was a regulation, moreover, which didn't adequately offer a right of defence or determine when offences were deemed to have expired, the point being that an expulsion could damage career prospects and indeed would have.
The regulation having remained, there was a case involving five students who were expelled from the University of Seville in 2002. They were allowed a right of appeal, but because of the inadequate definition of this right, it took nine years for them to be absolved on the grounds that there had been a lack of evidence of the offences they were alleged to have committed.
The Spanish government has finally come to the view that this regulation is unconstitutional, goes against democratic principles and values, and is contrary to religious freedom and plurality in a non-denominational state. The minister for universities, Manuel Castells, has described the regulation as "obsolete and punitive". University authorities believe that it leaves a legal vacuum that needs filling because although a law of 2001 gave universities autonomy for governing their institutions, the codes of conduct by which the universities operate don't have the weight of law to back them up.
That this regulation still exists is a nonsense. New regulation needs to firm up codes of conduct in just the same way as there are disciplinary codes which apply to any institution or organisation. For the most part, these should be in line with general law on dismissal; expulsion is basically the same thing. While certain institutions, such as the military, may have their own codes, universities are - or should be - part of the societal mainstream.
The fact that they are currently subject to an outdated regulation owes everything to what Castells has called obsolete. In the 1950s, illegal student movements did start to develop, and what had been a Falangist organisation, the Sindicato Español Universitario, was itself involved in a violent demonstration in 1954; its leaders had started to question Spain's politics. The regulation was in response to this.
The occupation I've referred to was in the same year as Franco died. Charles Clarke became NUS president around the time of the dictator's death. Having once, like Jack Straw, been something of a militant didn't do him any harm. How lucky he was. It was a different country.
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