I studied for an HND in Electrical Engineering, taking a college-based sandwich course at Bristol Poly which was later to merge with Bath University. It was sited in an old orphanage in commanding, or is it forbidding, grey brick buildings. The inside was better.
Most fellow students had a relationship with a company, many of them with the local electricity board, whereas the college was supposed to find me a series of placements. I loved the fact that our lecturers were people who had actually worked for a living, with practical knowledge of the material they were presenting. But once there, I was more seduced by the freedoms and other things on offer, becoming rather good at table football and shoot pontoon.
I promptly fought a husting to become NUS Chairman (National Union of Students) for the College. Union committee members had previously only been drawn from the Chartered Surveyors’ faculty or Domestic Science department; the Faculty of Electrical Engineering took a very dim view of my taking up this appointment.
The husting proved not to be my only fight. I also had a battle with the Radical Students’ Alliance (RSA) that was moving in on colleges. A student organiser of the British Communist Party had founded the RSA. It was heavily under the influence of a Trotskyist group which controlled the National Association of Labour Student Organisations. They were backed by aggressive activities from the West German extreme left-wing Socialist Students’ League. They were doing all the fun stuff, protesting about Vietnam and later organising the Grosvenor Square riot. As my dad had been an ardent trade unionist, I might well have opted for their side of the argument, but did not. The local battle was occasionally quite heated.
I did briefly become a hunt saboteur, spreading aniseed to annoy local toffs during their hunt. But perhaps my most outrageous act of rebellion was to barricade Ashley Down Road during Rag Week. I claimed, on signage, to have found a manuscript that awarded rights over the road to the college. Anyone with an ounce of local knowledge would know the college history was short, although the drab grey buildings which had originally been Müller’s Orphanage founded in 1845 lent it some semblance of age. We collected monies from cars, vans and buses for the best part of an hour before the police arrived. The copper asked who was in charge and we remained quiet. He was a clever guy; he stood back and ordered us to move the barricade and stupidly I said ‘Come on guys, let’s do it’. He immediately grabbed me, now revealed as the organiser. Not such a smart revolutionary! At the end of my first year I sat nine examinations for the various subjects. I passed seven of them but failed Workshop Technology and General Studies. The first was messing around with lathes which I didn’t find particularly edifying and missed most of those lessons; the latter was a mishmash of Philosophy and Psychology, topics that were of interest to me but the lecturer was weak. Overall my lecture attendance on that course had been only 16%, I had lost momentum. The college concluded I would have to redo the first year, so I walked.