Higher education in the wake of the Great War

A Sunderland academic has been reflecting on how those who served in the war helped transform student life

Dr Sarah Hellawell, a lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Sunderland, hopes to enhance our understanding of this particular group of ex-service students, as well as the universities and colleges affected by their wartime experiences.

Sunderland Technical College – established in 1901, which would become Sunderland Polytechnic in 1969, then the University of Sunderland in 1992 – certainly felt the impact of the war. Out of the 220 male students from the day training college who joined the armed forces, 38 were killed in action. Plans to expand the college and establish a mining department had to be put on hold.

At Durham University, 2,464 students served in the armed forces, of whom 325 lost their lives over the course of the war. Around half of these students came from Armstrong College in Newcastle, the largest of the Durham colleges at that time. In Newcastle, the War Department requisitioned university buildings to house the Northern General Hospital, which cared for around 10,000 troops during the conflict. The hospital was staffed by staff and students with an association to the university, particularly those from the medical college. Female graduates and students served as voluntary aid detachments.

Although some student societies remained active during the war, for the most part student life was diminished for the duration of the conflict.

However, after the war, British universities received an influx of students who had undertaken wartime service in different forms, as the government introduced a scholarship for ex-servicemen. However, says Dr Hellawell, this funding scheme has been overlooked in the literature on the history of education, as well as the history of the First World War.

She adds: “The demobilisation of service personnel at the end of the war coincided with a sharp increase in the student population. Those whose studies had been disrupted by war service resumed their education, while others embarked on university courses for the first time. Between 1918 and 1922, men and women who had served on the front line were a distinguishable cohort at universities and colleges.

“These students and their memories of the war had a transformative impact on student activism. They made a significant contribution to the reconstruction of university life by revitalising student societies. Moreover, students took an active interest in international affairs, the League of Nations and reconstruction.

“In an attempt to promote internationalism, young people sought to forge links across Europe through humanitarian relief work and foreign travel. Significantly, in 1922, British students – which included those from Durham University’s Armstrong College in Newcastle – founded the National Union of Students (NUS) to maintain links with their European peers.”

The experience of war had a sobering influence on students, who were keen to erect memorials to their fallen colleagues. There are plaques at Armstrong College and the Sunderland Technical College.

The latter, which lists two members of staff and 38 students, says: ‘To the glory of God and to perpetuate the memory of the Staff and Students of The Sunderland Training College who laid down their lives in the Great War.’

Due to the disruption of war, many of the ex-service personnel were older than the average student. Some were married with children. Older students who had witnessed first-hand the horrors of war were studying alongside younger students. The Board of Education concluded that these older students with experience of war service were having a positive influence on campus.

Ex-service students were instrumental in reviving certain aspects of student life, such as debating societies, sports teams, literary and historical study groups, and student politics. This period also saw greater collaboration between male and female students on extra-curricular activities.

Dr Hellawell explains: “Student societies were considered to be a vital part of university life, not just the social side, but to allow for the ‘free interchange of ideas’. For instance, the Durham Union Society debated issues relating to war debt, disarmament, the League of Nations, nationalism and internationalism.

“Students did much more than simply revive old societies, however. They also created new groups in the aftermath of the war. Many of these new societies promoted the rebuilding of an international community.”

Dr Sarah Hellawell

There was also an incredible amount of charitable work in the local area, thanks to student societies inspired by their experiences of the devastation of war and levels of mass unemployment on Tyneside.

By 1922, the majority of ex-service students had completed their three or four year courses, and graduated. However, says Dr Hellawell, “there were fears that college societies would diminish without their enthusiastic leadership, as these ex-service students left a notable legacy on both national and local student life for future generations of undergraduates.”

In February 1922, delegates from universities and university colleges founded the National Union of Students at a conference held in London. It aimed to represent students from a national and international viewpoint, to facilitate co-operation between students in Britain and overseas. The NUS was the British affiliate to the International Confederation of Students, which had been established in Strasbourg in 1919.

As part of its goals to promote links between students across national borders, the NUS opened a travel bureau to arrange tours, as well as organising accommodation and hospitality for foreign students visiting the UK. Through the NUS’ schemes, British students travelled to Europe as au pairs, on exchange visits, undertook educational trips and attended international summer schools. The international side of the Union’s work was very important.

Dr Sarah Hellawell presented her work at a recent conference commemorating the end of the First World War, at the University of Sunderland.