Next week students at NUS National Conference will elect the new president, this week we are looking back at presidents from NUS' past - today we look at the oldest surviving president, Stanley Jenkins.
At 90, Stanley Jenkins is NUS' oldest surviving president. He was at the helm of the student movement during a critical post-war period when NUS’ work was dominated by the Cold War, a time when its leaders served a far more international role than those of today.
Since leaving NUS, Jenkins has served 28 years with the Foreign Office including postings to Kuala Lumpur, Burma, Cyprus and Oman, followed by 32 years (and counting) of active retirement.
By the time Stanley Jenkins enrolled onto a building technology course at Cardiff Technical College in 1946, he had already accumulated more stories to tell than most do in a lifetime. During World War Two, Jenkins recruited and trained West African troops before leading them through India into Burma. At the end of the war, he led a company of troops back to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) before being demobbed onto the streets of Liverpool with no money,
After the war he was expected to join his family firm of builders. Instead, he opted to study, and, after securing a Further Education Training Grant for £236 per annum, he started a four-year course at Cardiff Technical College.
The higher education sector had all but closed down during the war, and consequently Jenkins’ generation of students was much older than those of subsequent and previous years. As unrest grew over what the older students considered ‘petty’ legal restrictions, Jenkins, in his second year, took action by lobbying his MP George Thomas, and was successful in having many regulations changed. Jenkins recalls: “This picked me out as a student who could get things done, and I was nominated as Welsh Vice President of NUS.” And so began his journey in student politics.
Stanley Jenkins was a landmark president on many levels; he was the first full-time paid president, and also the only president to this day to come from a technical college. But one factor that perhaps marked him out above others was his political neutrality. He explains: “I found myself in NUS as probably the only non-communist with a largely communist dominated executive. I wasn’t very interested in politics, but everything they were saying countered my impressions.”
Jenkins considers the reversal of the trend towards communism to be his greatest achievement as president. “The student movement was in real danger of communist subversion at the time I was elected,” he says. “By the end, that trend had been reversed. It was like a train – in my time it ran into the buffers, and we were the buffers.”
Jenkins’ presidency was dominated by the Cold War, as the battle for communist control of the British student movement was at its height. He travelled behind the Iron Curtain to Eastern Europe once a month for meetings of the executive committee of the International Union of Students. As a staunch opponent of the communist regime, these trips were not without threat, and Jenkins was often the sole passenger on planes to Prague. “It was very lonely and very dangerous,” he recalls. “Surveillance teams shadowed me everywhere I went.”
Although Jenkins’ ultimate aim was to steer NUS away from its communist leaning, he initially viewed its involvement with the International Union of Students as crucial. He explains: “In spite of all that I was reporting, I took the line that we should remain members of the international union and try to reform it from within. That proved to be hopelessly wrong, and eventually we came to the conclusion that we must disaffiliate, and that’s what we did in 1951.”
Jenkins spoke out against an intimidating audience of 500 delegates in Prague; an opposition organised by Alexandr Shelepin, who was later head of the KGB. “They shouted me down but I refused to leave the rostrum,” Jenkins remembers. “I insisted on going through to the end of the speech. I might have been very foolish or very brave.”
Shelepin was somewhat of an arch-rival for Jenkins during this period. “He was my main adversary in the Cold War,” Jenkins says. “He represented the Soviet Bloc and I represented the West. I had many, many meetings with him behind closed doors, arguing the toss about the wording for the main resolutions. He was Stalin’s right-hand man, he was the head of the youth and student movements, and he was the man who called me an ‘arch-fascist imperialist beast’!”
NUS ultimately disaffiliated from the International Union of Students in 1951 as a result of a national referendum,
Although international work dominated Jenkins’ presidency, NUS did play an important domestic role as well. He says: “We were very concerned about the cost of education, and we were running campaigns mainly to secure free education for all and expansion of university places. We did secure free education for all and we were very proud of it, but we were totally preoccupied by the Cold War.”
NUS itself changed drastically during Jenkins’ tenure. “The presidency became a full-time job in my time,” he explains. “We had established new departments covering travel, vocational work, cultural activities and even the NUS bookshop.
“We were much older than subsequent generations. We were ex-servicemen. I was 26 when I was demobbed, I was 29 when I became president, and subsequently younger generations took over and most of those departments failed.”
As president, Jenkins met a string of high-profile leaders of nations. He had lunch with President Auriol of France at the Élysée Palace; he met with Queen Juliana of Holland; when he visited Bulgaria, he was met on the platform of Sofia railway station by the entire Bulgarian cabinet.
“We were recognised by politicians at the highest level,” Jenkins says. “When we went to all these countries we were received by prime ministers and foreign secretaries. After the war, students were regarded as very important, which isn’t the same today.”
Jenkins strongly believes that the student voice should be well tempered. “I think it is very important that the voice of students should be heard – they have a legitimate point of view, and provided it’s exercised sensibly it can be important,” he says.
“When I started off in NUS, we were totally barred from anything, we were young communists. In the end I was invited to Downing Street, I met Clement Attlee. We were being listened to. A moderate voice will always be heard, an extreme voice won’t be.
“It is important to be recognised as reliable and sensible,” he continues. “If demonstrations are not regarded in that light, then I would avoid demonstrations. I would prefer to see Internet petitions, polls, lobby of MPs, anything which is recognised as sensible and acceptable. But avoid extremes.”
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