SQ Magazine

The UK's Leading Independent Youth Culture Publication

FEATURE: The State Of Student Activism

Posted on Monday, 13 May by

Student Activism Title

In November 2010, over 50,000 campaigners from across the country swarmed in on the streets of London to voice their dissent at the newly elected government’s plans to treble university tuition fees to over £9,000 per year.

The event was earmarked as a new dawn for student activism in the UK. It was the most memorable public protest since opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, and became the largest student-led campaign since the Labour government first proposed the concept of fees in 1998. Inevitably, politicians and the press, quick to peddle a narrative that demonised students for causing civil disruption, hijacked the legacy of the November protest.

Last year, to mark the second anniversary of the 2010 day of action, the National Union of Students (NUS) led #Demo2012 to push the student agenda back under the nose of decision makers in Westminster. In stark contrast to the frenzied scenes of two years earlier, just 5,000 students landed in the capital for a controversy-free event that courted little attention and warranted nothing more than a shake of the head at a missed opportunity.

While it was perhaps premature to suggest that the 2010 demonstration would reawaken the student movement, something of a sleeping giant since the political revolutionaries of the 1960s graduated and found work, no-one expected things to fade away from focus so soon after the government passed their higher education reforms into law.

However, as 2013 starts, there is evidence that things could be set to change. The NUS elections were dominated by a protest candidate labelled as the ‘Inanimate Carbon Rod’, while at Sussex, a grassroots campaign opposing university privatisation has gained national attention and gathered widespread support from names including Noam Chomsky, Frankie Boyle and Peter Capaldi.

In a bid to uncover the current state of student activism in the UK, SQ speaks to James Woods, a human rights campaigner ,student activist and writer, while we also get the views of those behind the ‘Sussex Against Privatisation’ campaign that resulted in an eight week long occupation at the University of Sussex conference centre.

Is a revolution around the corner?

Interview with James Woods

Student Protest

James is a sociology student at Liverpool’s John Moores University with a history of human rights campaigning. He was one of thousands who took to the streets of London last year for the National Union of Students’ much maligned national demonstration.

What drove you to protest last year?

The continual rising costs of education, which I believe is a true human right, and because of the commercialisation of the higher education system with the universities referring students to ‘customers’ and the like.

How effectively do you feel that the #Demo2012 campaign carried that message to Parliament?

Sadly, I think it failed to send the full raw message to Parliament. Avoiding Parliament Square, the exact place where we should exercise democracy, was a fatal mistake by those who organised the action.

Do you think the NUS severely damaged its reputation with its action, or lack of, last year?

Absolutely, I personally picked up on the negative comments from fellow students and I even know many decided to not attend due to the poorly proposed route.

I was also witness to a large amount of students who decided to hang back at the entrance to Parliament Square, which was almost a protest at #Demo2012 itself! There was also the ‘unfriendly’ reception for the president of the NUS at the poorly attended rally at the end.

Student activism isn’t dead, but it could use some CPR.

Student Activism

Do you think that the march was evidence that student activism is pretty lifeless in the UK?

I refuse to accept that student activism is dead. But I sure can agree that it could do with some CPR. I’ve noted growing grassroots resistance, for example a campaign by students at Leeds to ban the presence of arms dealer BAE on campus, as well as a resistance against Starbucks at a lot of institutions.

I think students can be some of the most clued up and active people when it comes to voicing their concerns and protesting, but on the other hand I think that media scare tactics have led to a level disrepair amongst not just student activism, but activism as a whole.

We’ve established earlier that a non-direct student demo made no impact – do you think a more confrontational protest style would elicit a better response from decision makers?

I don’t feel that anything more than a peaceful protest or peaceful direct action can make a justified difference without giving the powers that be further excuses to limit and suppress right to protest.

Finally, what do you think needs to happen for student activism to become important in the UK once again?

I think still think it holds it’s importance in society, it’s just a matter of students feeling and knowing that is does have the potential to change things and can make a difference, without having to smash up shops and fight with police. They need to get confidence back.

You can follow James Woods on Twitter.

Interview with Occupy Sussex

Occupy Sussex Mar25 Stefan Filby

Photo by Stefan Filby.

Why do you think that this campaign has caught the imagination of the public and mainstream media?

I think this is really interesting. There are two key areas and this is a student protest unlike any in the past. Social media has really allowed us to harness the emotions on campus and revolutionise the way that a protest can take place. Also, if you look at other occupations, there’s never been any wi-fi or the ability to spread messages so quickly to influential figures. Secondly, it’s down to what we’re fighting for. Student protests are mostly about students and it’s very easy for mainstream people to ignore us. This one is about the commodification and marketization of universities up and down the land. This isn’t just an occupation; it’s a student faculty. It’s much harder to demonise a community than it is a bunch of students.

The NUS have come out in support of the campaign. How effective do you think they are when it comes to fighting for student rights?

It’s a difficult one. We met with one of the vice-presidents quite early on in the campaign, and she was very helpful and supportive. It was recently election season for NUS officers though and I think that’s had an impact of how they want to be perceived. Student movements can’t necessarily spring from unions anymore. While this campaign has been endorsed by the Sussex Students’ Union, they do not run it. The NUS have been fairly late on this campaign and while they have a role, I don’t think they can be relied upon in any way.

Student Activism 2

Do you think that the abuse of student rights, by this government in particular, has damaged the enthusiasm for young people to become involved with activism?

From what I’ve experienced, since the huge demonstration in 2010 everything seems to have fizzled out a bit. When something goes through government, a motion that you seem to have nocontrol over, it’s easy to switch off. However, the fact that reforms are still continuing with the changes to how universities are being run is starting to reinvigorate the student movement. We’ve played a big part in ensuring that students talk to each other about the changes that are happening and right here, we’re seeing the rebirth of a type of student protest that we haven’t seen for a long time.

The University of Sussex has been quite vocal in presenting legal obstacles to the campaign. How far will you go to be successful?

As far as we’re concerned, this will go on indefinitely. The problem for us is that management are still refusing to engage in any serious conversation. As long as that’s the case, this will continue. This protest has been about privatisation but it’s also been against how this decision was made and how universities are continuing to be run. There seems to be power to change things negatively for thousands of people lying in the hands of a few businessmen, and that’s not something we believe that education should be.

Sussex Protest

How much have you and your fellow campaigners learnt from being on this journey?

From speaking to people who haven’t necessarily been involved in student politics before, it’s great to see recognition that we have a voice. Realisation that down the line someone will listen to you, because someone will care. Individuals here had no voice whatsoever, neither did the staff. In most people’s minds, universities are public institutions ran in the interests of society but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. It’s sad.

You can follow Occupy Sussex on Twitter.

Illustration by Ollie Stone.

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Corey Pellatt
22-year-old editor of SQ Magazine and Media Studies student at the University of Sussex. Freelance writer for clients including BHAFC.


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