Review: Swansea University – Campus and Community in a Post-War World, 1945-2000
You don’t need to be lecturer in maths to work out that the dates for this centenary volume don’t quite square up but its author has taken the wise step of telling the story of the institution after it had properly established itself. By the end of the Second World war what had started as a small cohort of 89 students in 1920 studying in Nissen huts was starting its evolutionary journey to become today’s plate-glass, market-driven university. The book charts its expansion into something far more complex than just a venue for academic study, changing into a many-faceted “multiversity” before finally joining the ranks of what Stefan Collini teasingly describes as ‘HiEdBiz plc’.
By the 1970s and its fiftieth birthday, its original 34-acre site had expanded to 280 acres of land and new subjects were being taught such as Computer Science, Genetics and Psychology and student numbers had increased tenfold since 1945, with ex-servicemen making up half of the student body. In those days the staff were in loco parentis, legally looking after their younger charges and the relationship with them was pretty stiff and formal, with freshers’ week essays and gowns worn for dinner. The college started to really grow after WWII, playing its role in public life and contributing to post-war reconstruction in a war-ravaged part of Wales that had been relentlessly pounded by German bombers.
To the book’s benefit young historian Sam Blaxland decided to garner much material from oral history sources, which animate its pages no end. So when Peter Robins arrived in the city to start his life as student in 1952 he asked half a dozen locals how to get to the uni. ‘Half of them didn’t know there was one. And the others – they’d heard there was one but they didn’t know where it was!’ Its location, set on the western edge of Singleton Park and bounded on one side by the sea, caused a degree of separation between campus and civic life, although some students lived in the town. Some impoverished students lived in digs where men had to share the same bed.
It wasn’t all study of course. There were drinking games such as ‘Viking’ which involved downing eight pints of beer without a comfort break, and this in a country where many chapelgoers considered drink to be ‘liquid evil.’ The rise and unsteady rise of student drinking was matched by moral opprobrium, of course, not least by such bodies as the Welsh Baptist Union which worried about the serious moral impact of opening a college bar.
There is an intriguing cast of characters in this volume. There was John Fulton, who presided over one of the periods of strongest growth, when Swansea was the blueprint for a rash of new universities across the UK. And Ian Bone, the anarchist who recalled setting eyes on Swansea and thinking ‘I was landing on Mars as the train clanked through the cratered moonscapes of the lower Swansea valley’. There was English academic Isabel Westcott, who had a markedly maternal attitude to her charges who stood at exam hall entrances handing out ice-creams from an empty tea-pot. And the less tolerant physics professor Frank Llewellyn Jones who threw a student out of class for having ‘the temerity to turn up in jeans.’
Along the way, we witness the slow growth of gender equality, from the early days when women professors such as the botanist Florence Mockridge were as scarce as orchids. Indeed, in 1949/50 of the 150 or so students studying applied science there wasn’t a single woman. Living conditions in the new women’s halls of residence meanwhile left much to be desired: one resident in the 1950s recalled ‘rancid butter, weevils in the cabbage and strolling cheese.’
There was also a sometimes troubled relationship between town and gown, the occasional academic scandal, the closure of departments, all the peaks and troughs of the institutional waveforms of alternating confidence and financial contractions. We also see the gradual morphing of the students themselves, from the staid, pipe-smokers of the fifties through the psychedelic colour changes of the 60s, to the protestors against anything from apartheid and modern post-war architecture to the death penalty and lack of a pedestrian crossing across the busy road in front of the college.
In the spring of 1969, when student protests spread like wildfire across the world, 250 Swansea students staged a benign sit-in, for five days and nights, occupying offices and playing guitars. The protests against the visit by the Springboks to play Swansea RFC in 1969 turned violent and over 200 demonstrators were injured in clashes with the police. But things were never quite so bad as a headline one year in the local South Wales Evening Post which suggested ‘Rampaging Students Eat Vice Chancellor.’
When the tragic landslip at Aberfan happened in 1966 many students rushed there to help dig into the coal-slurry while in the years that followed increasing numbers of students got involved in voluntary work, even if some fund-raising Raise and Give japes set local noses well out of joint. Local preachers stood tall in the pulpit and railed against the ‘moral dirt and poison’ of the RAG week magazine called Slag. And of course the students were galvanized by the Miners’ Strike as many local coal mines were closed by Margaret Thatcher.
But in the main the student body was politically disinterested or disengaged. A fascinating table shows the newspapers they read in 1984, with the joint sales of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express outpacing the Guardian. Women’s rights were slowly recognised and won but gay rights came in much more slowly and faced prejudice. The mid-1980s saw cleaning staff, worried about AIDS, asking for rubber gloves and disinfectant when the theatre group Gay Sweatshop came to perform at the Taliesin theatre. In some years the Gay Society had precious little support and sometimes not even sufficient members to form a committee.
The college, as it was at the beginning, had connected with its industrial hinterland in many mutually beneficial ways, with strong links to the local steel works. The college’s first president was a tinplate magnate Frank Gilberston. As it grew it drew mainly on the old counties of Glamorganshire and Carmarthenshire for its student populace but gradually it expanded its base and its horizons, attracting international students and also places for refugees from the Pinochet regime in Chile. Before that E.A.McIvor Slowe had become the first black president of a students’ union in 1958 while the UN Social Welfare Fellows scheme attracted students from countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Cyprus, all confirming a long track record of positive attitudes towards race, consonant with the city’s eventual status as a sanctuary city.
In 2007 the college became a university, with degree-granting powers and full autonomy, recognising its growth and enabling its marketing in a higher education sector which was increasingly competitive. In the 2000s BP seemed to underline the long and profitable relationship with local industry when they gave a huge cash injection to help create the new Bay Campus.
Sam Blaxland tells this story in an engaging, informative way and the book is punctuated by lots of good visual material he has garnered from the Richard Burton archives. It is not a dry, fusty account of an institution and neither is it a fawning roll-call of its successes. It locates the university both in its local hinterland and within the terrain of post-war UK universities, as they grow into bigger and bigger businesses which are therefore increasingly key to regional success.
As Blaxland notes, alongside the football club it is the area’s biggest economic driver. But as he also explains it is also still a place where people come to learn.
Swansea University: Campus and Community in a Post-War World is published by the University of Wales Press and can be bought here.
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