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Remembering Digby Jacks - NUS President 1971-73

Friday 11-11-2011 - 00:00

When Digby Jacks was elected NUS President in March 1971, the press predicted the division and demise of NUS. Jacks’ membership of the Communist Party immediately drew attention from a media eager to identify and demonise a Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Rudi Deutchske within the British student movement. However, he dismissed such notions by pledging his primary loyalty to the student movement:

“I say to everybody: judge me by what I do – if I take NUS funds and deposit them in the Kremlin, then people can judge me.”

He is remembered by his NUS colleagues as an intensely serious man, with a strong work ethic and an innate conservatism. However, with his long red hair and beard, and his commitment to left-wing politics, he also appealed to the spirit of the times. These qualities, and his appearance, made him a very suitable president: good for the image of NUS, credible with students, and able to charm the most sceptical of education correspondents.

Digby Jacks was born and brought up in Charlton, and studied biology at King’s College, London.  After a brief spell at Woolwich Polytechnic, he studied for a teaching diploma at the Institute of Education and taught briefly at Holland Park Comprehensive. Prior to his election as NUS President, he was first elected to the National Executive Committee in 1969, and served as National Secretary the following year.

His was an eventful presidency, throughout which he successfully combined NUS’ strong lobbying capacity with the targeted mobilisation of students. He and his team arbitrated between university authorities and students’ unions in numerous disputes, supporting students in occupation where necessary, and sometimes even calling for national demonstrations to show solidarity.

However, his support was not unconditional; during a dispute at the Polytechnic of North London, for instance, he found that every time he got near a solution, the International Socialist leadership found a new issue to dispute. He denounced this approach as “bloody irresponsible”.

Jacks, in turn, was denounced by both right and left for his approach to resolving such situations. He remained resolute in his belief that his first duty was to education, and that NUS’ newfound freedom of expression was something to be used sparingly.

Despite his efforts to temper the movement’s demands, the number of disputes leading to direct action led to calls for change. In October 1971, Margaret Thatcher, then Minister of Education, produced proposals to restrict students’ unions’ finances and autonomy. Jacks led one of the first major NUS mass mobilisations in a day of action in December, followed up with a national demonstration that attracted 40,000 students in London in January 1972. In a major victory for the student movement, the proposals were withdrawn.

Jacks, supported by Stella Greenall of the Grants and Welfare Department, also successfully negotiated an increase in the student grant. Conference delegates, however, denounced the extra £10m going into the system as insufficient. Socialist Alternative called for a general strike, arguing that:

“The demands of the grant campaign will not be met unless the organised working class can defeat the wage freeze. We must therefore primarily ally ourselves with the Labour movement rather than chasing the mass media (i.e. the bourgeois press and TV), college principals, university vice chancellors and the like, for REAL and ACTIVE support.”

Jacks took a more pragmatic view, and later noted:

I thought we did extremely well…Obviously, we had to ‘reject’ it, but in the real world it was a major victory.”

On the international front, Jacks was proud that NUS finally discussed policy on support for the Vietnamese people and engaged more with organizations such as the European Students’ Meeting and the International Union of Students.

Digby Jacks concluded his presidency in July 1973, and could look with satisfaction at the enhanced profile of NUS.  In his leaving speech at the NUS Annual Conference in April 1973, he charted some of the changes in NUS since he had first become involved. He rejected the approach of many of his predecessors and looked forward to NUS’ role in changing not just education but society as a whole:

When I first became involved in the affairs of this Union, NUS existed in the context of a student body that was completely different from what the student body is now. As that student body began to change in the middle 1960s, NUS was irrelevant to that student movement and its development…

‘Now, whether you agree with everything this executive has done, or none of it, or all of it, the fact is that NUS is in…the very middle of the student movement of this country. What it does is of decisive importance…It has begun to develop a perspective for the student movement: a perspective which will lead the whole student body in a direction which will be socially progressive and ultimately, in my view, lead to the overthrow of the social system in this country.”

The system proved more robust than he predicted.

On leaving NUS, he became a Divisional Officer for the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) and took some time out to write a book which set out his views on student politics. ‘Student Politics and Higher Education’ was published in 1975, and remains one of the few publications to chart the historical development of the student movement in the UK. In addition to this invaluable historical record, Jacks gave his support to the NUS History Project, and donated his papers to NUS.

He stayed with the trade union movement for the remainder of his career, as an Assistant General Secretary of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Trade Union. After his retirement, he served as a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Hounslow until 2006, and latterly acted as the Secretary for the Alliance for Finance, an independent confederation of trade unions and staff representative bodies working in the finance industry.

Predictions of NUS’ demise under Jacks’ presidency proved false. The student movement united under his leadership, and significant gains were made for students. Jacks’ influence in the student movement lives on, and many contemporary student leaders will recognise a quote from his book that underpins the approach of the NUS Active Political Leadership training course:

Representation must never be seen, except in strategic and practical terms, as an end in itself. Too many union officers see it as a question of communication and merely sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and social change.”

Digby Jacks spent his entire career working for social change; when he died in October 2011, he was proud that generations of student leaders had continued to do so.

Obituary by Peta Steel in the Independent

Obituary by Francis Beckett in the Guardian

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