Placards for the student protests over increased tuition fees in London in 2010 (Leon Neal)
Students have endured rising tuition fees, low quality accommodation, limited contact time and a tough graduate job market for years now – but things appear to have significantly worsened over the last two years. For the class of 2021, most of their university experience has been marred by long term staff strikes and a pandemic that has forced online learning and university closures. Of course, our education institutions can’t be blamed for the outbreak of Covid-19, but they can certainly be blamed for their lack of empathy and kindness in responding to the crisis. In the upcoming year, students will graduate with up to £60,000 in debt into an oversaturated job market that simply cannot accommodate them all in the context of the worst recession on record, Brexit uncertainty and, of course, a pandemic of momentous proportions. This is unfair, scary and cruel. So, when we’ve been so poorly treated, where is the student resistance?
In 2010, students across the UK were collectively infuriated at the coalition governments plans to hike tuition fees. Just two years after the recession hit and after repeatedly promising to leave tuition fees alone, it is no surprise that such angry resistance followed. Ten years later, when students are arguably in a much worse predicament, where has this spirit gone? While student activism has continued to thrive in universities like Goldsmiths, where the student union is active and the work of groups like GARA draw national media coverage, at others it is minimal at best and non-existent at worst. But even in instances where students still protest on matters relating to themselves and their university, it cannot be denied that the collective organising and sense of unity within student experience that erupted in 2010 is certainly lost a decade later.
One possible explanation for the apparent grit-your-teeth-and-bare-it attitude that many students, myself included, seem to have is something that should no longer be overlooked: fatigue. After a particularly difficult year set within a backdrop of other difficult years, most people are feeling pretty exhausted and for very legitimate reasons. It is not just the tumult of the past year that has left both the student body and the wider general population down-trodden, it is also the enduring feeling of disappointment. Like government, university senior management teams have been letting us down for a very long time, for so long that our disappointment has withered away into bleak cynicism. We could arrange a nationwide protest, but one question would linger in the minds of many: what’s the point? We know that tuition fees will not be reduced, that we will not be compensated for time we haven’t been able to access campus, that student accommodation will not get cheaper or of better quality and that contact hours will not increase. When we know that those in charge are wilfully incapable of making changes in our best interest, it is difficult to find a reason as to why we should even try.
For working class students in particular, the disappointment is bitter. We enter university with the promise that better job prospects, social mobility and a sense of achievement await us on the other side. More than ever, this promise has not been delivered upon. For many young people, university still remains the only path out of areas of poverty, limited jobs and a general lack of prosperity. When so much hard work goes into just getting your UCAS application accepted, the reality that a degree may not be the golden ticket you wished it to be is almost unbearable. What adds to the frustration is that on December 12th 2019, the majority of students voted Labour, in perhaps the only realistic chance to inspire any sort of change. The injustice of the situation is heart-breaking, but the same issues still remain – cynicism and fatigue.
The situation is difficult, especially for those who will graduate in 2021 into a set of extremely undesirable circumstances. While this collective sense of exhaustion and distress can certainly be paralysing, we must try not to succumb to it entirely. If we choose to take up a form of resistance, we can. This in itself is an empowering truth to remember. While it would be easy to call for a mass student revolt on the streets, akin to that of 2010, this is perhaps not realistic for the time being. Students must continue to organise, resist and protest but we must also meet ourselves where we’re at. Here, we can turn to the micro actions. Caring for ourselves and one another, resting, giving ourselves time to complete the tasks we need to complete and giving ourselves experiences that are joyous and fun are all acts of resistance. On the minds of many students, is to get assessments done and to achieve decent grades – and this is okay. Where student activist campaigns do crop up, like the recent Goldsmiths Rent Strike, we must each do our bit to support to cause, be it helping to organise or simply resharing their message on social media. Each small action will generate momentum and, hopefully, snowball into a larger collective action full of fury and rage, when the time is right.