Guest Blog: International Students at the University of Birmingham in The Guild News 1958-1962

This is a guest blog by current undergraduate students Rahma Mohamed and Tamanna Rakib. They undertook this research as part of the recent conference on Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration, organised by MBS MA graduate Ellen Smith. Here, Mohamed and Rakib present their findings from the Guild News in greater detail.

The opportunity to delve into our University’s past through the student newspaper The Guild News was an invaluable way to bring to the fore experiences of international students. 1958 to 1962 was an interesting period of investigation regarding foreign students in the wake of World War II. Analytical signposts we considered to guide our research were student events, student societies, student profiles and student interaction with international politics.

Image from the Guild News showing a Canadian Candle light dance performed by Sita at an International Evening
Pictures from the events that had happened in previous years would often be included as a way to encourage more people to attend. UB/GUILD/F/4/9

In our appraisal of student events we focused on two recurrent ones – the International Evening and Overseas Freshers’ Conference. International Evenings’ popularity reflected a positive cultural exchange – it was said that ‘people had to be turned away’ (October 1958, p.3). By 1958, the International Evening was in its sixth year and was advertised as including dances from Estonia, Poland, and an Israeli choir. The Overseas Freshers’ Conference to help foreign students acclimatise to Birmingham debuted in 1958 with 44 international students attending.  By 1961, The Guild News reported that there were 2500 international students in the West Midlands and the Overseas Freshers Conference was amplified as a result of this growing number. Therefore, whilst interaction with international students was limited, it was burgeoning by the late twentieth century. Significant to historical research, events like the conference provided the only student profile of an international female student from 1958 to 1962, Miss Izzat Alibhai! Beyond these set events were a plethora of additional ones, like the International Brains Trust which, however minor, still provided an essential paper trail.

Furthermore, there were ‘80 societies, plus the Guild societies function in the Guild’ (March 1960, p.3). Within such a framework was evidence of active foreign students’ engagement in UoB life and their home countries. Societies prompting cultural exchanges occurred via the Arab and Israeli societies’ cultural exhibitions (1960), the French and Jewish societies’ plays (1960) and the World University Services which annually held an international week at UoB. An example of international students’ engagement in their home countries affairs was the charity ball held by the South African Society (1959). Many of these societies (like the French and Indian societies) appreciated the cooperation of notable figures, namely cultural delegate for the West Midlands Mr A. Favre and the permanent secretary of the Guild, promising a picture of broadened interactions with foreign students between 1958 to 1962. 

Locating individual profiles throughout the newspaper was also incredibly helpful. Profiles of Medical student Sadrudin Jivani and Chemical Engineering student Ahmed Qidwai demonstrated the way in which international students both excelled academically and with regards to their involvement with student social life. Hamid Noshirvani’s profile was of particular interest as he shared the different adjustments international students would have to make, whilst also stating that international students were hesitant to return back to the Middle East due to instability. Demonstrating the role of the newspaper in facilitating a conversation between the student, international student Tarik Al Irhayim responded by attributing the instability of the Middle East to the meddling of the West and argued international students were actually eager to return.

Not only had Sadrudin Jivani been the first to take his second year exams with a beard, he had also won Fresher of the Year even though he played no sports and was unable to speak proper English. His main motivation was to simply prove he could do it. UB/GUILD/F/4/9

The newspaper as a forum for opposing views to be voiced would also emerge following the publication on the front page in 1961 of a racist letter that had been sent to Mike Thickett, the Chairman of the S.C.A.R.S (Students Committee Against Racial Segregation) society. Set up in the wake of racial segregation in South African universities, S.C.A.R.S were no strangers to racism and the purpose in publicising this letter had been to show that racism did not just exist in South Africa but was present here in the UK. Whilst some chose to believe the letter was doctored, there was evidence that ethnic minority students were upset that this opinion had been plastered on the front page. This could be attributed to the fact that it was well known that they would have been potentially already have been exposed to the racist views present in Birmingham, especially when looking for accommodation.

Although we only spent our time researching four years of The Guild News, we found a wealth of information about international students that was not included in our final presentation or indeed this blog. In that sense, there is still a lot of work to be done to better understand their experiences at University of Birmingham.

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