Dr Sarah Hellawell offers her reflections on her work as Research Associate on the ‘British Ex-Service Students and the Rebuilding of Europe, 1918–1926’ project.
Between May and December 2017, I was Research Associate on the ‘British Ex-Service Students and the Rebuilding of Europe, 1918–1926’ project. This was an exciting opportunity to embark on a collaborative research project with different academic and community partners following the completion of my PhD. This project sought to examine the impact of the Great War on university students. Between 1918 and 1923, there was influx of students at British universities as those who had undertaken different forms of war service returned or embarked on studies for the first time. In particular, the project focused on the influence of ‘ex-service’ students on university life and the impact of the war on international student activism.
Funded by the AHRC ‘Everyday Lives in War’ World War One Engagement Centre at the University of Hertfordshire and led by Dr Daniel Laqua (Northumbria University) and Dr Georgina Brewis (IOE, UCL), this project has also involved collaboration with the National Union of Students and the North East Workers’ Educational Association, whose own research into adult education during the ‘Turbulent Times’ after the Great War aligned with our aims. Research findings from the ‘British Ex-Service Students’ project have been disseminated through blog posts on the NUS website, a pop-up exhibition, public talks at Newcastle’s Literary & Philosophical Society and NUS offices at Macadam House in London, a pamphlet, as well as a forthcoming academic journal article.
Before embarking on this project, I knew little about the history of universities and student activism; at the same time, my own research on British and international activism – namely peace, internationalism and women’s rights – clearly connected with the themes of this project. As such, the project allowed me to build on my existing knowledge while developing it in new directions. My principal role was to conduct archival research into two case studies – Durham University (including Armstrong College in Newcastle) and University College London – using the records held at Newcastle and Durham universities, NUS offices in Edinburgh, University College London and the National Archives. I consulted student newspapers and magazines, as well as records of student societies, student records and the papers of the Board of Education.
One of my favourite findings was the discovery of the prominent role that female students played in student societies despite the fact women only made up around a quarter of the national student population at this time. Notably, at UCL the proportion of female students was higher. There, women made up a third of the student cohort. Moreover, individual female students stood out, including May Hermes (Bedford College), who was instrumental to the international work of the NUS, and Violet Anderson (UCL), who attended the international student conference in Prague in 1921.
Crucially, this research has shed light on Board of Education’s scheme to provide grants for ex-service students. The impressive scale of this scheme has previously been overlooked in the historiography. By 1923, 33,668 students had been awarded financial support. Undoubtedly, this scheme transformed the social composition of British universities, although further work is needed to analyse the background of these students. In addition, this project has shown the range of activities that ex-service students embarked upon after the war. Ex-service students were instrumental to the reinvigoration of university life. Shaped by their experiences of war, many of these activities promoted the cultivation of international links with students in other nations, particularly through the National Union of Students, which was founded in 1922.
This study has also demonstrated that students across England embraced these goals. Both those in London and the North East were interested in peace, internationalism and the League of Nations. Indeed, in 1925 students at Armstrong College in Newcastle asserted
‘Armstrong will produce some of the finest people in the world; men and women who will take office in the National and International Student Movements – why should we be content for Oxford, Cambridge and London repeatedly to supply such people?’
(Northerner, January 1925, 47. University Archives, Newcastle University Library)
Although my time as Research Associate has come to an end, work on this project has initiated various ideas about future projects and outputs based on the history of ex-service students. For instance, there is scope to extend this study to consider students in other areas of the country – including those in Scotland and Ireland where grants were administered separately – as well as those enrolled at technical colleges.
We will present our findings at the History of Education seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in March. We also look forward to displaying our pop-up exhibition, distributing our project pamphlet.
One of my favourite aspects of undertaking this research was the local case study of students in the North East of England. I will present aspects of this part of the research to the North East Labour History Society on 3 April at the Old George Inn in Newcastle. All welcome to come along!