Politics, poetry, “pot and pills”: 130 years of The Student

8 November 1887. “Students are awakening to a sense of power and responsibility for their share in wise management of the University”. Or so says the editorial published on that day, in edition one of The Student.

The brain child of Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Browning and John Stuart Blackie, The Student was founded following the failure of the Student Representative Council’s own attempt at a paper, aiming “to be a medium for the expression of student thought and criticisms”. The three had worked together the previous year to produce The Journal of the Fair, a guide to a four-day SRC fundraising event, and The New Amphion, an accompanying pocket-sized anthology of verse and prose. These two publications formed the basis of the Edinburgh University student newspaper, and 130 years on, it is the oldest student publication in the UK.

The university has played host to several other student publications over the last century, but gradually they each fell by the wayside, whether jumping of their own accord, or being pushed by a certain publication which shall remain nameless (in the run-up to the 1890 rectorial election the liberal and conservative associations formed their own political papers to promote their own candidates, and in response The Student marked the following three elections by launching written attacks on their writing quality, editorial naivety, and “poor attempts at humour”).

The paper has grown significantly over the last century, but while some things change, others have remained constant throughout. Early editions of The Student featured poems and other creative writing, and ended with athletic club news and results, with each club sending in their results from the week: not too dissimilar from the Sports Round Up usually found nowadays on page 32. The editors also used humorous poetry to make light of the scandals of the day, such as this rhyme mocking a student whose act of eating his peas using his knife in Teviot led to an official complaint about poor manners in the union:

“He mixed some treacle with his peas,
He’d done it all his life,
But not because he liked the taste –
It kept em on his knife”
(For similar poetic wit from today’s paper, see this week’s horoscopes).

The editorial staff’s enduring love for light-hearted lampooning aside, a quick scan of the controversy section of The Student’s Wikipedia page reveals a history of butting heads with university staff and the student community alike. 1967 saw then-Editor in Chief Anna Coote hound rector Malcolm Muggeridge to support pleas for contraceptive pills to be made available at the university’s doctors practice. He responded by resigning his position, citing the Student Representative Council’s views on “pot and pills” as his motivation. The paper seemed unable for a long time to shed this perceived penchant for illicit substances, with a 1981 motion being put to the SRC criticising its “misleading and derogatory references” and specifically naming the ‘Drugs Column’ as encouraging students to abuse drugs and risking direct responsibility for university deaths.

Reflecting on the last 130 years is astonishing in terms of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, but also provides a brief glimpse of what the future might hold. Who sits around the room at our weekly editors meetings? The next Gordon Brown or Robin Cook? The future Bill Turnbull or Helen Pidd? Perhaps, if we’re really lucky, one of us will go on to reach the same sort of fame as Pop Idol’s Darius (yes, the ‘Colourblind’ singer indeed wrote for The Student as a film and music critic in the 90s).

As much as I hate to write self-indulgently, it would be difficult to end a celebration of The Student without sharing a personal reflection. The beginning of a university career can be an incredibly difficult time, when confusion reigns and self-confidence plummets. When I started writing for the paper in my second year it was the first time I had experienced pride since leaving home 18 months prior. That pride has since grown. I’m no longer proud simply of my own writing or research skills, but of the people surrounding me who are far more talented, kind, and hard-working than I. As I approach the end of my degree I can assure you that being a part of this team has been the highlight of my four years at the University of Edinburgh.

Regardless of my own passion for the paper, what I hope most for the future of The Student is for the wider university community to get as much from it as we, the small group pictured above, do. A student newspaper should function as a service to the student body, and not just as a means for journalistic-hopefuls to improve their writing, or as a CV-fattening tool. With the internet rapidly changing how we engage with information it’s innevitable that a student publication might no longer fulfill a traditional news function in the same way. But there are other things we can do, other niches we can fulfill. So if you’re reading this and would like to get more out of your student newspaper, whatever it may be – let us know. After all, we are here to serve you, the students. This newspaper should be to you what you want it to be.

“They know about abusing press freedom to embarrass political and personal opponents. If you’ve any mud to throw, give it to us and we’ll throw it for you.”

Images: (left) 1981, University of Edinburgh via libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk; (right) 2018, Andrew Perry

Illustration: Josh Green

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One Response

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  1. nigelbillen
    Apr 28, 2018 - 07:01 PM

    And you are right to be proud. (From an editor circa 1980/1)

    Reply

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