Jordan Kenny, our former SU President (2014-2016), meets Richard Hall, his predecessor from the ’70s to reflect on a role not much changed.
“What I’ve found incredible in the 18 months or so I have spent as Students’ Union President has been the sensationally fast pace of change which occurs here at Bath in almost everything. When you consider the way in which students consume knowledge, the applications our researchers utilise to break new ground, facilities from residences to laboratories popping up or even the pace at which students arrive and leave again, if you blink you could be left behind.
“What I’ve found incredible in the 18 months or so I have spent as Students’ Union President has been the sensationally fast pace of change which occurs here at Bath in almost everything.”
Jordan Kenny, SU President 2014-2016
When the opportunity arose to spend some time with Richard Hall, an alumnus of the University and former Students’ Union President in 1974/75, I jumped at the chance to meet him! Richard is a regular visitor to campus, and he’s always impressed at how different it looks. The size of the University has increased hugely since he was President here. Today, there are around 7000 students on campus at any one time with thousands more on placements. Then, there were some 3000 students in total. There are 50 staff in the SU now in all manner of roles, where as in Richard’s day, there were only four.
Walking around campus together and visiting the SU, it was fascinating to hear how Richard’s time as President really helped to shape the SU and what it is now. He told me that the SU during 1974-75 was trying to create the professionalism that we expect as standard today: “We were trying to set it all up then – to win the university’s trust in handing responsibility over to students. We were seeking to build amenity and activity and so we negotiated more of a role in what the university was providing, for example catering and bars and a wide range of societies.” Richard also told me how he set up the first Arts Society – the Arts Barn (now The Edge) which was a derelict building back then. He was also responsible for setting up ‘Nightline’, a counselling service, and even a driving school! He also set up the first Graduation Ball in the Roman Baths – in the summer of 1977 you were still able to swim in them!
As we continued our conversation around campus, what struck me was Richard’s tremendous grasp of the current issues which our students face, and I think we both discovered something fairly quickly which took us both a little by surprise – so much has remained the same here and the big issues are still living costs and jobs.
“The big issues for students back then were living costs and jobs”
As Richard and I dug a little deeper, it became apparent that the climate of being a student was all in all not that far apart either. A squeezing on the funding available from government, an understanding that you needed to work towards getting a job on graduation and the desire to have your voice heard are issues which we both seem to have wrestled with.
There was one striking difference between Richard’s time as President and mine, and that was in the form of activism. I had not anticipated that Richard would identify Bath as having been a hot bed of political action. However, at a time when inflation was rising towards 25%, the University wanted to increase rents by a staggering 30% during the academic year. The very students who had been campaigning for fair grants were now caught with the impossible situation of not being able to finance their basic needs. It led to an occupation of the Vice-Chancellor’s office and Richard couldn’t hold back the tide. This was the hardest week during his time as President and the University decided to temporarily close. Richard had to make the decision to end the occupation and “get back to being an institution that works together.” It ended after a huge General Meeting where 1100 students gathered on the Parade, jumping up and down to keep warm in the cold. This would have been nearly half the student population in 1974-75!
How to engage students took a very different form in Richard’s era. Nowadays, everything from challenging the norm to campaigning on issues of social justice takes place on multiple platforms, and increasingly so online, where people expect an immediate and individual response to the things they care about. This change to digital interaction took Richard by surprise: “We were constantly producing leaflets – sometimes 10-15 different ones in one lunch hour. Motions were put forward so regularly that General Meetings could be on a weekly basis.”
So, I suppose the question really is what I took away from our meeting? When you separate the fact that I came into a role with a much firmer organisation in place, one in which, because of in part Richard’s work, we have sport clubs, societies, volunteer opportunities and a network of volunteers and staff, it is a little hard to see how different the environment is. As Richard commented “It fascinates me – it’s different, but not all that different. New furniture, bigger, but still trying to do the same things.”
In that essence, I would suggest the challenge for the future is more unclear than I possibly realised before meeting Richard. 40 years ago I’m not sure we would have thought that the issues would be all so similar. Looking further ahead is going to be rather difficult, but hopefully if I come back in 40 and even 50 years’ time, I’ll see some of the foundations which I have helped to create being as evolutionary for students then, as Richard’s have been for us now.”