A spectre is haunting UK higher education, that spectre is 1968. The protests which took place during the late 1960s represent the high water mark for student activism in Europe and abroad. Inspired by student protests and the civil rights movement in America, and the Prague Spring and similar uprisings in eastern bloc countries, students and workers joined forces in central Europe to oppose the Vietnam war, demand economic and political reform, and to lobby for greater participation in the university management. During protests in Rome students there closed the university there for 12 days while British students demonstrating against the Vietnam war attacked the Defence Secretary, the Secretary of State for Education and the Home Secretary. Spanish students, protesting against the sanctioning of a mass for the soul of Adolf Hitler, closed the university of Madrid for over a month. Most spectacularly however were the events in Paris in May 1968. The Union Nationale des Étudiants de France called a march to protest the earlier police invasion of the Sorbonne which resulted in riots and the arrest of hundreds of students. The widespread condemnation of the heavy handed reaction of the authorities, and the students support from trade unions and wildcat strikes and occupations, brought France to the very brink of revolution.
Student protest never disappeared from our streets, but since the 1960s it has been marginalised, separated from wider political forces such as the trade union movement and stifled by the close association between NUS and the Labour party with its progressive shift to the ‘centre’. More recently however events have conspired to re-ignite the flame of student protest. The anger towards the introduction of tuition fees has simmered away for over a decade and the proposed hike in UK fees saw large scale protest and unrest in the streets of London last year. This increase in activism and political awareness coincides with the burgeoning anti-capitalist movement in the form of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and copy-cat occupations in London etc inspired by another ‘Spring’, this time the Arab Spring.
Already the increased buying power of undergraduates soon to be paying £9,000 per annum for their university education has inspired some institutions to increase contact hours, improve teaching standards and improve campus facilities and accommodation for students in an effort to appear to be ‘better value for money’. The student movement on the other hand seems momentarily perplexed by their increased clout, brought on by the very changes which to which they opposed themselves so vehemently. ‘Students not Consumers’ read one banner during a protest which took place on the campus of Swansea University (inspired perhaps by the title of an earlier article in the New Statesman), a call which has been echoed in various editorials and even a statement from one pro vice-chancellor. The call for increased student participation in the running of universities and control over the delivery of content is certainly not a new phenomenon, and certainly anyone with any knowledge of the structure of the medieval university would see curious parallels which may perhaps inform future debate.
The medieval universities organised themselves around two broad archetypes. Both were in a sense ‘teaching universities’ as the Humboldtian research university was a 19th century development. The first and perhaps most important archetype was the universitas magistrorum et scholarium or ‘Masters Universities’ of Northern Europe, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. The Masters university were those organised and administered by the professors and teachers who worked within the corporation. It is this model of the university which survives to this day, with every institution in the modern world organised along similar lines. In medieval Bologna however, the alma mater of all European universities, the university existed in a radically different form. The ‘students universities’ were so called because their corporate structure was entirely controlled by the student body. They elected their own representatives, they paid the salaries of the professors and enforced strict regulations concerning the number of teaching hours, the pedagogical methodology and even the content to be delivered.
To the modern mind the fact that the students controlled the university may seem startling, and to the permanent residents of university towns across the country perhaps even horrifying. It is worth bearing in mind however that these students were not fresh-faced undergraduates of 17 or 18 such as now, but were on average much older scholars who would have usually had some prior training in the Arts, which was the equivalent in the universities in northern Europe of an undergraduate degree. In a sense the Bolognese student university was more like a university controlled by post-graduates. The increased appetite for ‘informed choice’ in modern UK institutions, for some, spells the end of the Humboldtian research institution or, at least, the birth of a two tier university system with some institutions focused more on teaching. What if, buoyed by the greater buying power and the amplified confidence and vocalism brought on by the recent increase in activism, students call for a return to the medieval model of the ‘student university’, albeit in a revised format for the modern world?
This ‘student university’ model arose organically within medieval Bologna, it was not founded or established in the modern sense, and the institution developed as a result of the unique conditions in which the scholars and professors found themselves. The power within the university in Bologna was not won by political activism per se but bought by the relative wealth of its students, and the professors reliance on those students for their livelihood. The professors at Oxford, Cambridge and Paris meanwhile, as a result of these institutions strong ecclesiastical association, were usually beneficed clergy. They had an independent income stream and thus were not as vulnerable to the demands of the scholars, who could withdraw their fees if unsatisfied. The medieval students in Oxford were criticised in the 70s by Allan Cobban, perhaps himself influenced by the spectre of ’68, for their seeming lack of desire to try and wrestle control of the university out of the hands of the Masters. For Cobban the medieval undergraduate at Oxford was too naive and immature for the rigours of university governance, not to mention his (medieval students were exclusively male) heavy workload. Perhaps there is a parallel to be drawn here: To what extent are undergraduates willing to take on the fiscal responsibility, or capable of administering the bureaucratic machine, that is the modern university? One other noticeable feature of the ‘student university’ is the relatively short lived nature of these institutions. While Bologna, Sienna, Padua et al are all successful universities today, the student-run element disappeared during the fourteenth century. There was nothing inevitable about the failure of the student university, but when the Communes (i.e the towns in which the university were hosted) began to pay for some, and then all, of the professors’ salaries this short lived experiment was over. The students never lost their say in university affairs in Bologna but they no longer had the power to ensure that their voice was heard by withdrawing their fees.
What the history of the medieval university brings to the modern discourse on the future of Higher Education is the certainty that whomever pays for the professors holds the power. With the slashing of education budgets, and the increase in tuition fees, the balance of power is once again shifting in favour of the students. The age of the average undergraduate today is older than that of medieval Oxford (sometimes as young as 14), but not as high as that of medieval Bologna, nor do the students today have the same level of prior education. So perhaps today’s undergraduates are still not best placed to decide what they need from their education system. What of graduate participation? Surely there can be no objection to students who have been through the education system taking a more active role in re-shaping it based on their experiences? To an extent this already happens, but the former students at the centre of administering and governing the university are all academics, and academics educated within the research institution. Undergraduate training took the form of the prerequisite training for research in that chosen field, but with academic posts become fewer and fewer, and student intake rising, this is perhaps no longer a sustainable model. This once again resurrects the ghost of the ‘student university’, but perhaps one with greater participation from the alumni community but the realisation of this alternative seems as fraught with difficulties as asking youngsters fresh out of school to take on the responsibility of administering the university.
It seems inevitable that the Higher Education system in Britain will become more student led, more student focused and more concerned on delivering content than research. This is not necessarily a bad thing, pedagogy is not and never has been a high priority of UK universities. Greater student and alumni participation is also surely to be welcomed, as the beneficiaries of the education system it is only right that they have a say in the content that is being delivered, but the adoption of the medieval style ‘student university’ model is perhaps a step too far. Or, is it?
 There is a fantastic display of photographs of these events and similar ones across Europe contained in the “Museo Europeo degli Studenti” in Bologna.
 The best summary of the history medieval Universities is still Rashdall’s The universities of Europe in the Middle Ages despite the recent flurry in studies of the individual institutions. The collection of essays edited by Hilde de Ridder-Symoens called A History of the University in Europe provides a more up to date and nuanced study for those wishing to expand their reading.