Student unrest at the end of the sixties followed a period of unprecedented expansion in the universities; the new concrete campuses more than doubled the participation rate, from something like 2% of 18 year-olds to 5%. After the second world war, higher education became virtually free to all those able to gain entrance on academic grounds. New courses were overtaking the immediate post-war science bias; between 1963 and 1968 the number of sociology undergraduates tripled.
In the sixties the unrest puzzled Britain. Conservatives attributed it to a global Communist plot; Northcote Parkinson blamed it on women, the Chairman of the National Sheepbreeders Association attributed it to lack of vitamins and recommended more meat in the diet. The clergy attributed it to a resurgence of religious feeling, the Russian government said it was the start of the end of capitalism and Labour's education minister put it down to Grammar School thuggism. No two disturbances had the same cause; Vietnam, the Welsh language, squatters, Biafra, uni bus services, Rhodesia, accommodation, Greece, refectory chip prices and Ireland all sparked riots.
But compared to what was going on elsewhere it was all very British. In France, a lecturer at Vincennes arrived to find that a fellow lecturer had convened a people's tribunal to try him for his life; he was only saved from death by a daring rescue undertaken by Communist students. In Japan, armed police fought pitched battles with students, and they too formed 'people's courts' in the university, so deeply humiliating a professor of electronics for not teaching his subject in a revolutionary way that he committed suicide. In London, the staff at Rhodesia House made tea for the besieging students.
I'm wary of drawing too many parallels between 1968 and 2010, but how the protests roll out will be interesting to watch. Whether students will try to take control of their own institutions will be one thing to watch; have they forgotten how to do a 'sit in'? Will they try to disrupt guest speakers? Will Michael Gove be pelted with eggs? Or will it all just fizzle out, to be posted on 'Facebook' through a coffee-bar WiFi with a skinny Latte?