124 years of The Student: A celebration of the UK’s oldest student newspaper

Published in Spotlight, 5 April 2011

Amid the bedlam that comes with corralling 50 students into producing a 32-page newspaper every week for 25 weeks a year, it is easy to forget that in doing so we are following in the footsteps of others who have been doing the same thing for 124 years.

Anyone working for The Student is always vaguely aware of the paper’s history. The fact that we are the UK’s oldest student newspaper, founded in 1887, is emblazoned on our front page banner, but the richness of our heritage did not become real for many of us until very recently. In the break between Christmas and the start of the new term, we set about clearing out the decades of detritus that had accumulated in the warren of storage rooms that form part of our offices in the basement of the Pleasance union building. After a while we found a recess in the wall, covered by a large sheet of plywood nailed down. A few minutes and several out-of- breath editors later, we managed to pull the plywood away to reveal a huge stock of back issues we never knew existed, and were presumed lost; huge, bright orange broadsheets from the 1970s, and tiny, beautifully illustrated Punch-style weekly magazines from the turn of the last century. We spent many fascinating hours poring over these, getting a feel for how the paper has changed over the years.

It is strangely satisfying to know that despite the passage of more than a hundred years, student journalism is in some ways actually very similar to when the paper first began publication. We thankfully no longer have to take a steam train to London and back every week to have the paper printed, but many other things are just the same; there is the same belligerence towards stuffy university authorities, the same thirst to change things for the better, and the same dry, snarky, slightly self-satisfied wit that is so characteristic of student humour – just as present in the beautifully bound editions of the early 1900s as it is now.

Many of the problems that editors of The Student battle with today were much the same back then. Every other issue in 1903, for example, has a notice gently reminding its contributors of the need to write in such a way that does not force its ‘dear readers’ to have to consult a dictionary in order to understand every article. Editors then, as now, were faced with the challenge of finding the balance between articles that are rigorous and in-depth, yet accessible to and interesting for the general reader. Trying to sum up the general feeling of students on some great issue of the day on a weekly basis is something that I’ve been struggling with during my time as editor, and it is comforting to find that the editor almost 110 years ago in November 1902 suffered in the same way. Accompanied by a miniature sketch of an editor with his head in his hands, throwing yet another draft into the bin, he writes: “It is exceedingly difficult to write an editorial on nothing, yet that is the predicament in which we find ourselves. We wish to reserve this page for the exercise of our own peculiar genius, which at this moment refuses to answer to our calls upon it. Ideas flit through our mind only to elude us, and when we succeed at last in grasping an intangible something, our genius turns its head away with a snort of contempt.” Despite being separated by more than a century of history and huge changes in the role and structure of the media, it is fitting that our Edwardian predecessors struggled with the same weekly effort to put together a publication full of original, insightful content, while at the same time doing a full-time degree and trying to squeeze a social life somewhere in between.

The Student is, and always has been, very politically engaged and at the forefront of some key debates around public policy and social issues over the years. The paper’s comment section has long been an opportunity for students to give their opinions on a range of topics, whether they are general matters to do with the university and students, or wider national and global issues. We are proud to give students a voice to discuss what they feel strongly about to a wide audience, opinions that might otherwise only be listened to by a few of our friends or read in essays by our tutors. Again, this is a tradition that has been upheld by successive writers and editors of the paper over many decades. In 1898, in what must have been a relatively courageous editorial decision at the time given that even partial women’s suffrage did not become a reality until 20 years later, the editors published a poem from a women student protesting against her treatment by the university and male students, arguing for male and female students to be on an equal footing. It is as witty and intelligent as it forceful:

“Please listen, Mr Editor, to my plaintive tale of woe,
And tell me just a thing or two that I would like to know;
The ladies here are treated as one big harmless joke;
–Why can we not be thought of as nice, serious, studious folk?
So can’t you just make up your minds to look us in the face (!)
As serious and important types of the glorious human race?
We take ourselves quite seriously (er – most of us, I mean)
And can’t you learn to do the same, and let the effect be seen?
But one small question I would ask, between my bashful blushes :
– Did it never strike you that any of us could be tarred with different brushes?”

The issues from the 1960s and 1970s again show that students have always been on the forefront of social and political change, featuring articles celebrating gay relationships even before gay sex was decriminalised, and reporting back from students who were fighting against Apartheid in South Africa being just a few of many examples. A 1974 exposé of poor treatment of university staff by the authorities during strikes against university funding cuts makes for fascinating reading; especially set against the increasingly similar situation faced by today’s students.

A read back through previous editions of the paper shows how much of a springboard it has been for its staff’s future careers. Founding editor Robert Louis Stephenson was one of the most famous literary figures of the Victorian period, while students writing about the cut-and-thrust of student politics went on to dominate national political life. You can hardly turn a page of any issue from the early 1970s without seeing Gordon Brown’s name or face; first as a news editor and later as the first ever student rector, whose long-running conflict with the university authorities is meticulously documented. Hundreds of journalists, photographers, editors and producers from the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Herald, The Times and The Scotsman all started their careers in the media with us.

We see one of our main aims being to provide a training ground for those aspiring to such a career and, to that end, we are run in much the same way as a professional weekly newspaper; we use all the same techniques and the same software as most national newspapers, meaning that our staff have a huge early advantage should they choose a career in the media. The Student also has a proud history of being a training ground for illustrators, cartoonists and photographers, with editors placing just as much importance in striking images as engaging articles. Older issues have beautifully engraved title plates: the one used throughout World War Two, for example, is a depiction of the Edinburgh skyline at night; the sky punctured with the searchlights that were used to pick out German bombers. As the war is ending in March 1945, the title plate changes to one showing young soldiers being beckoned by lady Liberty to leave the darkness of war behind and enter university, with all the notions of progress, recovery and enlightenment that it would have entailed at the time. We continue the tradition today; every week we publish a specially commissioned artwork produced by Edinburgh College of Art students, which we hope will form the basis of an exciting new exhibition in the near future.

The 2010/11 academic year has been an extraordinarily busy and exciting one at The Student. We have been responsible for original coverage of events important to student readers, including a variety of protests relating to increases in tuition fees, for which we sent reporters to London and Manchester, and we had some of our photographers’ pictures of the November Millbank riot syndicated in the national press. We have continued to hold our students’ association – EUSA – to account, reporting on their management of union services and on disputes between societies, the university and EUSA. We have also provided extensive ongoing coverage of the controversial proposed merger between the Edinburgh College of Art and the Edinburgh University, which is of vital importance to several thousand students in the city. Several of these stories have subsequently been covered by other news outlets, and The Student is often the first port of call for national journalists covering Edinburgh University stories. For the first time, we are planning to continue printing beyond the usual end of the print run in March, with a Holyrood election special in May, a summer special after the end of exams and an Edinburgh Festival version in August, giving a chance for our review editors and writers to shine. The Student continued its long run of winning the Best Newspaper award at the 2010 The Herald Student Media awards, and has a number of writers and photographers up for awards from NUS and The Guardian.

Considering the number of pitfalls that regularly plague any student newspaper – volatile advertising revenue, debt, predatory university authorities, funding cuts and stormy relations with students’ unions – it is remarkable that The Student has printed almost continuously for more than a century, longer than many national newspapers, its commitment to being a loud, forceful yet informed and reasonable voice of Edinburgh students is as strong now as it ever was.

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