- Columnists such as Laurie Penny and James Evans have been commenting on the increase in student protests in recent months, and claiming that it signals a 2014 that will be dominated by them. However, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff argues that in reality, it is only a small portion of students who are politically radicalised.
We have been called the politically apathetic generation, and I am inclined to believe this is true, despite the recent ‘wave’ of protests up and down the country. As a student at Goldsmiths, University of London – a college well known for its left-wing political campaigning – this apathy surrounds me, and I am also guilty of it.
The recent issues kicked off earlier last academic term with university staff striking due to their 13% wage cut in real terms since 2008. At Goldsmiths the strike was organised by the Trade Union Unison, but University and College Union, Unite and EIS union were also involved, which made for widespread action throughout the country. Staff actively and successfully encouraged students to boycott classes, and NUS President Toni Pearce showed further support, stating that ‘Students want the staff in our universities and colleges to be treated well and paid fairly.’
Since then other conflicts have progressed into small occupations and protests. But although there may have been around 3000 students marching at the University of London Union (ULU) Cops off Campus demonstration, there are over 120,000 students represented by ULU London-wide. And out of the 3000, only a tiny turnout of 50 Goldsmiths students represented my supposedly political university. As implicated, those who pay attention to politics and actively take part in protests, occupations and strike action, represent only a small pocket of the student population. The aforementioned boycotted classes can also be attributed to laziness, rather than political engagement.
Therefore, there is no point in claiming, as some news sources have, that students have become politically radicalised when the vast majority have not. Ideologically we may be on the right track, but in terms of taking physical action, and asserting ourselves to the point where we become interested in the political parties, we stop firmly at the doors of Westminster. Support for movements such as wage increases, feminism and the LGBTQ community may be growing amongst students, but as Russell Brand so eloquently highlighted earlier last year, political disillusionment is still strong amongst the youth of today. The reason why his inception of politics resounded so keenly with my peers is because, although filled with the anarchic idealisation of youth, we do not see ourselves represented in parliament.
Although there may have been strikes, occupations and protests up and down the country, I believe their impact has been vastly exaggerated. Speaking to students at Edinburgh University, I am met with blank faces, and claims that they ‘didn’t even know about any protests’, and the ‘strikes didn’t affect me’. It is the same story at Sheffield and Napier University. At Goldsmiths there was a small picket line and occupation, the existence of which I commend, but what I do not commend was the unnecessary superiority of those who manned it – executing this superiority in their harassment and cries of ‘scab’ when unaware and uninitiated students attempted entry to library and other university buildings.
Perhaps the next step for students who are already campaigners is to try harder to encompass the wider student population into their efforts. With collectivism could come more pressure on university administration to change staff wages, and more pressure on the government to stop turning education into a privatised marketplace; few are even aware of the governments recent privatisation of student debt.
But this means changing the dialogue in which the communications of these efforts are put forward – they need to become universal and not niche. If they ever expect to gain substantial votes from our eligible but somewhat uninterested age group, Westminster should keep this in mind too. The movements students were in support of last term have made little progress – the unappealing offer of a 1% pay rise still stands for university staff – but students make up a significant portion of the population, and that power should be harnessed.
It seems for the time being that universities like Goldsmiths and Sussex are the anomalies within the student sphere, and with Goldsmiths failing to live up to its political reputation, what hope do other universities like Edinburgh and Sheffield have? Let’s stop claiming that students are going to take over the world in 2014, and start trying to inspire them to do so.