YUSU Officers’ Memories: 60th Anniversary

As a part of the 60th Anniversary Celebrations at the University of York, a YUSU Officers’ Dinner was held at the Guildhall. They shared some of their fondest memories from over the years with Alumni Voices.

“The stand-out memories I have from my time on the Students’ Union executive are two occupations of Heslington Hall in the spring terms of 1976 and 1977. The 1976 occupation was in support of efforts to stop the joint social sciences undergraduate degree being broken up. The one in 1977 was to protest a steep rise in tuition fees that was going to hit self-funded postgraduates and overseas students particularly hard. Neither occupation achieved its objective although the Fees campaign in 1976/77 did help encourage the university to boost a hardship fund it set up for individual students.

The photo below is of me as YUSU President with the then Archbishop of Canterbury,  Archbishop Ramsay. He accepted an invitation from us to visit the 1977  occupation while he was in York.”

Richard Burden, President and External Affairs Vice President, 1976 – 77

“The current YUSU HQ is, I believe, formerly the squash courts in old Goodrich College. I lay claim to being the President that persuaded the university to give that to the Students’ Union to replace a dreary corridor in the college. Unfortunately I never got to use it.

The best memories were the gigs we put on. It was the height of the Madchester music wave and I remember buying riders for Inspiral Carpets, House of Love and The Farm. Simon, the Union general manager, always made sure we had sufficient drinks left over for an after party!
At the time I was the President that had faced the most no-confidence motions due to clashes with the more radical political groups that dominated union general meetings. They also ran Nouse which delighted in running tabloid style stories about me. Fun times!”

David Wheeldon, President and Treasurer, 1992 – 93

“Honestly it’s hard to narrow the whole experience down to individual memories. It was one intense year of chaos and joy. We came into office the day after the result of the Brexit referendum and ended our year with the 2017 General Election.

Some highlights:

– Working with the university after they committed £500k to improve mental health services across the university. Campaigning and speaking on mental health was the focus of much of my work and set me up for my career working in student mental health policy at a national level.

– Getting the Vice Chancellor to be a guest on our URY radio show ‘Sabbsolutely Fabulous’.

– Hosting Sexposé with the Academic Officer, LGBTQ+ network, WomCom and FetSoc.

– Speaking at NUS LGBT+ Conference. Successfully got policy through around LGBT+ mental health.

– Working with our liberation officers on a number of campaigns. One of our Womens’ Officers went on to be my successor.

– Working with the College VPs for Welfare. The James College VP went on to be my successors’ successor.

– Getting the Kitchen to be open through the night during exam season and providing toasties to the students working late in the library. We had a SABB on shift every night to help the running of it and to make sure we were there for students during their most stressful period.”

Dominic Smithies, Community and Wellbeing Officer, 2016 – 17

“I arrived at York in its second year – there was no Heslington campus, just some lovely buildings in the centre of town and – I think – a total of 600 students. In the late 1960s there was no sabbatical presidency so I decided to take it anyway by signing up to do a 4th year as what was called “an occasional student”. In the 60s most of us were pretty occasional.

There was no Students’ Union and no Union building or even a designated room. It was the SRC  and the Vice Chancellor Lord James had preferred to give every college state of the art, habitat furniture common rooms. He didn’t believe – bless him – that we would be better off organising from a centralised base. His motto was – or should have been – divide and conquer. And he succeeded because for the first four or five years the student body was pretty passive and apolitical.

The most active initially seemed rather right wing. So, we had speakers invited from the  National Front. That geed up the left wingers who decided the university should ban them. I found myself in the unenviable position of defending the National Front right to speak because freedom of speech was in my view a bigger issue. As a liberal I relished the opportunity to defeat the National Front by having more compelling arguments. Well, I was in the Philosophy Department. We did see the emergence of the Radical Student Alliance which certainly livened things up.

When Thatcher lifted her two-year price freeze, the canteen at the University put up their prices by 20%. The students were outraged, even though economists pointed out that had there not been a price freeze the prices would have seen a 10% increase each year.

I had travelled to numerous National Union of Student conferences at other universities, so I was aware that the food we were being served in York was far better than that at most of the old universities and was good value for money. But the student body decided that they needed to stand up against the price increases, so we had a well-organised boycott.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I think the boycott eventually led to a sit-in in which we took over the admin building Heslington Hall. I do recall Lord James walking around chatting to us reminding us that our years in York would be the best time in our lives to read great literature, and he hoped that we would be doing that while we were sitting in.

Life seemed very simple. It is hard to remember exactly how we managed without mobile phones and social media but we did. We coached hundreds of students to London to protest at the US refusal to open peace talks during the Vietnamese War (and the Marxists handed out marbles to destabilise the police horses!).

When Rhodesia declared its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (or rather the white nationalist Ian Smith did) I was running the York Anti-Apartheid movement and my Tutor, a lovely man called John Hayward, called me to his office. I assumed it was to tell me not to get too involved and get my work in on time. Instead he handed me an envelope and said some of the staff had made a collection of money and he didn’t expect to see me for the next few weeks.

On different note, my girlfriend at the time, her mother and I ran a trendy boutique selling hip 60s clothes. We tried to be the Biba of York.

Looking back it does seem like a rather wonderful time, but maybe that’s just because it is beginning to fade…”

Julian Blakefriedmann, President of Students’ Representative Council (there was no Union), 1967 – 68

“Being able to be innovative and have talented people around you that wanted to change things for the better. I will always remember when we had a 24 hour work-in in the Library against cuts and massive increases in overseas student fees. It had the support of staff, students and the City Community and attracted regional & national TV coverage, unlike some other campaigns in students’ unions in the UK. Our work on housing and looking after those most vulnerable was good as it was an alliance after lobbying of the University, Students’ Union and City Council.

Perhaps the biggest disasters were when the Jewish Society was banned because they didn’t have a platform and we had to negotiate our way though some very difficult feelings and emotions. I got denigrated in an editorial in The Times by Bernard Levin as a “White Fascist”. That hurt and was very wrong. Developing the female gendered constitution of the Students’ Union in 1977 also resulted in much learning and growing awareness.” 

Philip Harris, President, 1977-78, International Vice President, 1976-77 and member of University Council 1977-79

“I was fortunate to live in Lawrence Court in both my first and third years and it was a great place to live as a student, off campus but close by.  Saturday mornings there were something else as students poured out of their rooms to cross to the TV room armed with tea and toast to watch TISWAS.

In my third year I was fortunate to own a small hardly functioning car, the reverse gear didn’t work so I had to park the car on a slight slope so I could roll out of the parking space, that was if another student hadn’t found my car on campus and deliberately parked right behind me to block me in.

As President I was a signatory on the bank account which occasionally required you to attend functions, such as gigs, to pay the band. On one of these occasions a reggae band, the name escapes me, was playing Central Hall, so I turned up, watched the gig and went to their ‘dressing room’ to sign and hand over the cheque. I knocked on the door and went in to see what was the largest frying pan I’d ever seen, cooking assorted meats as the band were frying up their post gig meal. There appeared to be dozens of people in the room and more sausages being fried than I’ve seen in my life. ‘Come in and join us’ they said in a very friendly way, but I passed, leaving them to enjoy their food.

My fondest memory as a Union Officer was taking the weekly takings to the bank in Heslington with the Union secretary (Janie), banking the cash and then going for a pint and a game of darts. My election manifesto was jokingly ‘more of a socialite than a socialist’ – it worked.

Another fond YUSU memory was making cups of tea with the full time Union staff and getting to know them as they seemed to be a little wary of a newly elected officer who wasn’t your typical hack. So thanks to Jane and Janie especially for making my year as President so eventful.”

Tim Edmondson, President, 1984 – 85

Recommended Articles


  1. By the standards of the later 1970’s I suppose we were viewed as ‘pretty passive and apolitica’. However, I would challenge that view. Remember that in 1963 we were just 220 students the University consisted of Heslington Hall and a lecture Theatre (Charles 13th), no clubs ,no union, no nothing. From this start we formed much that exists to this day. The rules for the SRC, electing its first President (my old mate Pip) was a raucous affair, Mosley’s Northern organisers faced a barrage of noise from tweaked balloons, red face and annoyed Enock Powell had to eat his words, plus along cold night protesting in York City Centre over Mandealle’s captivity.

    Who did we have to rebel against, ourselves – we were the building blocks of a new University. Just one more lasting memory that no doubt should ever be recorded a small group of very drunk members of the Rugby Club wanting us to vote for the ‘ exclusion of women on the SRC’ – pandemonium followed,

    Now is the time to ask the ancients about what went on at the foundation of the University we are rapidly diminishing in numbers (75 to 90 year olds)

    Bill King (1963 -66)

    1. Thanks for your comment Bill. We are indeed collecting memories from all cohorts. We would be particularly interested to hear your specific memories as an alum from the foundation years. Please feel free to submit your memories via the Memory Map on Alumni Voices. You can find the link here: https://alumnivoices.co.uk/memory-map/

  2. Colin Cunningham. 006

    I agree with Bill that we oldies should be invited to submit stories re the foundation years. Indeed I have already suggested that anecdotes in a set format and font should be forwarded prior to the next (last?) reunion involving foundation years. The set style would facilitate collating and….

    1. Thanks for your comments Colin. We are indeed collecting memories from all cohorts. We would be particularly interested to hear your specific memories as an alum from the foundation years. Please feel free to submit your memories via the Memory Map on Alumni Voices. You can find the link here: https://alumnivoices.co.uk/memory-map/

Leave a Reply