Tribute to Roland Freeman

Thursday 26-05-2011 - 00:00

Roland Freeman, who died on 6 May 2011 served as President of NUS from 1956 – 1958, before taking up the post he was the NUS Assistant Student Secretary 1955 - 1956. Born in 1927 he had trained as a teacher in the late forties and had taught for six years before going to the London School of Economics in 1956,  where he was elected as the President of the students' union. He was part of a succession of NUS Presidents who were determined to position NUS as a strong and persuasive educational pressure group,. Like his predecessor Frank Copplestone he attended meetings of the International Students Conference (he led the delegation in Ibadan in 1957) as well as observing Congress meetings of the International Union of Students.

NUS was determined to promote practical links between students throughout the world an aspiration that was thwarted in the main by the division of the international student movement on cold war lines. On returning from a IUS Congress in Prague in 1958 he reported to NUS Council that "nothing has occurred to change the view, long held by the NUS, that this organisation is the student arm of the International Communist movement". 

During his two year term Freeman had to focus his attention on NUS’ mounting financial crisis. Just before he started  In 1953/54 NUS had come near to financial collapse and only the intervention of the bankers, Coutts and Co, in extending overdraft facilities had saved the organisation.

The situation forced the Executive to take the situation seriously and a firm of consultants, Urwick-Orr, was brought in. It was recommended that a Chief Administrative Officer be appointed, and Mr H F P Wetherell, formerly chief finance officer for the Nigerian Government, was appointed to the position. He worked closely with Freeman with the consequence that the financial situation was greatly improved, as were the reporting mechanisms, together they had brought NUS back from the brink.

A key source of income at this time was NUS Travel, by 1958 there had  been a series of significant losses of £1,400 in 1955, £650 in 1956 and £2,400 in 1957, Freeman took the view that the travel operation should be closed down. To tackle the crisis he called a Special Executive meeting but after five hours of debate, it became clear he was the only member of the NEC who believed that NUS travel (which had been established in 1922) should be closed down, he was concerned that if the travel company were to collapse it would take NUS with it. Realising he was in a minority he pressed an alternative proposal that NUS Travel be incorporated as a limited company to protect NUS, this also was rejected.

Freeman’s fear very nearly came to fruition in 1976 when the collapse of NUS travel forced the organisation to sell off its commercial assets and only nimble accounting by Neville Ealden saved the day. Whilst NUS Travel was unchanged, there was a change of management which set about successfully reversing the downward trend. 

Freeman was strongly committed to widening access to further and higher education, and argued strongly that anyone gaining a place on a degree or degree – equivalent course should automatically be entitled to a grant and furthermore that this grant should be awarded by a central awarding authority rather than by local authorities. He also called for the abolition of the means test and the extension of awards to Adult Education Colleges.

The NUS policy statement published in 1958 called for the abolition of the parental contribution, better on-campus accommodation, improved health services and greater consultation with students’ unions.  The Government had made some concessions on the amount of grant that could be awarded by the LEA’s and had issued very clear instructions on the timeframe for issuing the cheque to students, but not all of them were in a hurry to implement them and the delays continued . NUS was forced to tackle each one in turn with some success until Flintshire in Wales was the only one left – Freeman denounced the LEA as “Skinflintshire”, shortly afterwards they too fell into line, he also made the case that Northern Irish students should receive the same financial support as students in England and Wales which was finally agreed in 1959 after he has stood down from office. It was under his leadership that evidence was submitted to the Ashby Committee of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research on Postgraduate Awards, which included a detailed survey of postgraduate costs, he was supported in this by Stella Greenall who ran the Grants and Welfare section at NUS. This was followed by a victory against the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance whose attempts to define postgraduates as ‘self employed’ would have made them liable for substantial NI costs, NUS objected and the proposal was dropped. It was Freeman who led an NUS delegation who met with Sir Edward Boyle, Secretary of State for Education and Science in May 1957 to discuss the future of higher education; the meeting had been opposed tooth and nail by some of the civil servants in the Department of Education who were concerned that they were setting a precedent, it was meetings like this that did indeed set the precedent civil servants so feared and NUS was increasingly seen as a legitimate partner in discussion on the future of further and higher education. 

In a period of expansion the Government were keen to increase the supply of teachers  and had increased the number of training colleges from 66 to 129, it was Freeman who successfully persuaded the Government to increase the two course to a three year one. It was an easy win, as Freeman himself noted  “I went to see the Minister who said NUS was pushing at an open door - we got the change soon afterwards.” In 1957 Freeman negotiated a deal with the Student Nurses’ Association which brought their 30,000 members into the NUS. and was greeted with acclamation at NUS Council. The late fifties were a period of  expansion in NUS' membership with large numbers of training colleges and technical colleges applying to join. 

After leaving NUS Freeman became a researcher for the Conservative Party and involved himself in London politics, he was elected as the youngest Conservative Councillor in Wandsworth and this involvement led eventually serving as the Chair of the Finance Committee of the Greater London Council. In the run up to the 1975 referendum he ran the European Movement Campaign in favour of joining the European Community. He left the Conservative Party in the early eighties to join the newly formed Social Democratic Party, and from there later joined the Labour Party, in 1986 he was the chief lobbyist  trying to prevent the abolition of the GLC by Margaret Thatcher's Government.  He worked as a Unit Trust Manager. however his commitment to life long learning led him to take a course in Music Composition at Southampton University in the late nineties. He had a number of his compositions performed, some in Salisbury Cathedral where his funeral too place on 23 May.

Judith Broadbent who ran 'Friends of NUS' for a number of years remembers him with affection " music was his predominant interest later in life, and walking and the countryside.  But he still had a campaigning streak in him and an interest in the times and people from earlier in his life and in what they had all achieved.  A gentle and twinkly man, courteous and generous and interested in other people. He will be missed, the best any former NUS officer can say is that they left the organisation in a better place than they found it, he certainly did that, NUS extends its sympathy to his family and friends 




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