Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 11, No. 6. June 3rd, 1948
John Ziman Reports on British Students' Congress
John Ziman Reports on British Students' Congress
The National Union of Students have for the past twenty years' held an annual congress at Easter time. This year Leicester, the seat of a small university college, was chosen, and thither we travelled on a cold, wet, blustery day. I should explain that a congress is not an executive body, and is not entitled to make decisions or determine policy. It is a gathering of private members of the N.U.S. and exists solely to bring students together to discuss questions of common interest, although naturally the Executive take heed of the general feelings expressed. The nearest equivalent in New Zealand would be a W.E.A. Summer School.
The 700-odd students who squelched into the ugly brick University College were gradually sorted out and found digs, some in hostels and some in private houses. A fine job had been done here. We were paid four guineas apiece for everything except beer and they put us all up for a week in a city the size of Wellington (Tournament organizers please note). I was in a private home, but fed lavishly each day at the Domestic Science Hostel, (which has a vested interest. I suppose, in the supply of good food). The meetings were in the College lecture rooms or in the hall of a local grammar school, a large handsome airy building.
Small Groups Made Discussion Easier
The programme was full and varied. The most important items were four plenary sessions, at which some national figure, e.g.. Dr. Joad. Mr. Arthur Horner; spoke and introduced the subjects: "The Student and the State." "The Student and the Unions." and so on. These speeches were followed by some very hard hitting speeches from the floor of the meeting, where they would be amplified and the main speaker refuted or supported. In the afternoons we split alphabetically into "commissions." where we discussed the subject more closely. There were about forty people in each commission and there was never any lack of subtle, acrimonious, vigorous and thoughtful speaking. The decisions or opinions of the commissions were reported back to the chairman and the whole summed up briefly in the final plenary session. All the discussions were planned around a study outline. "The Status of the Student," a collection of thought provoking questions and statements which we had received before Congress and which we were expected to have thought about. We hadn't time to answer all the questions individually, but the final report suggests our opinions on most of them, and gives the Executive a guide to current student thought.
There were two sessions on I.U.S. and Czechoslovakia, where Tom Madden, Secretary of I.U.S., spoke on its work and on the recent events in Prague...
W.F.D.Y. and other international youth movements were discussed at another session. At odd hours, in the evenings, various student organizations, Student Labour Federation,
Union of Catholic Students, S.C.M., Association of Scientific. Workers, Association of Education Students, etc., arranged meetings and speakers for those interested. A very popular and successful item was the political forum, which was a brains trust of a Tory, a Liberal, a Socialist and a Communist, who answered questions and debated admirably. One afternoon we divided into faculties and discussed common needs and interests, and discussed the possibility of setting up national faculty associations.
The Social Side
Finally and probably most important I must mention the social life.
All I can say is that you would have thought that most of the students had never danced before in their lives and never would again. We certainly crammed in a vast amount of informal fox trotting and crammed a vast number of people into some very small rooms. The nearest thing I can remember was a dance in the VUC Gym on VE night (without tombstones though there is a fine cemetery next door). A week didn't seem any too short to make some beautiful friendships. Think of Tournament lasting a whole week, and think of having no responsibilities like jumping or running or debating or swimming. Besides dances there were concerts, singsongs, theatre parties and films, not to mention some comfortable handy pubs.
"What sort of people were these students?"
They were not very representative of student opinion as a whole. The vocal, energetic people were there; a high proportion of communists, many active liberals and labourites, and an amorphous mass of silent people who had come for the fun. Oxford and Cambridge were poorly represented; provincial universities and Londoners seemed to be there in masses, as were Training College students. I'm glad to say, however, that apparently the so-called "Weir House Mentality" Is not bred in England or does not go to Congresses.
It was fun meeting people, arguing with them, hearing them speak. The main speakers were entertaining and interesting. The social life was gay and relaxing. For me the weakness was a feeling of discursiveness, of trying to talk about too many things at once. We had too little time, and never got beyond the preliminary statement of the problem. I was bored by the stupid antithesis of communism and anti-communism, and the shouting of slogans by hacks. We would have done better if the subject had been briefer in scope, if we had had a series of lectures instead of one from each visitor, if groups had been smaller and better controlled.
But it was all worth while because of the people and the friendships, beautiful, platonic and otherwise. If you decide to have a Congress New Zealand, remember the primary aim is to get people together. Let them meet and argue and talk and dance and make love. No resounding resolutions or watertight party machines contribute more to good society.