Editorial: The Renaissance of Student Activism

By Émer O’Toole

I’ve reported on many student protests and conferences as during my time at student newspapers and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that most of my political engagement is characterised by sporadic, faltering interventions, particularly on social media, which lack interactions with anyone other than the immediate student bubble.

We may be exposed to articles we may not otherwise have read through Facebook and reading other people’s views has the capacity to compel you to question, if not at least refine your own views, but being immersed in your ‘friends’ opinions can have the dangerous ability to simply confirm your own political opinions. In short, though we may be involved in political dialogues over social media, this does not necessarily translate into us being political activists ourselves. The need for us to become more politically active extends to far more than sharing articles on Facebook and Twitter and voting in student union presidential elections.

Maybe the student protests seemed rather isolated at first. Dissatisfaction with the university union. Outrage over a minor decision. But consider this: only 3% of people in the world go to University but they make up 80% of global leaders. If your career plan is to run the country, university activism is an obvious starting place. While Nick Clegg (Social Anthropology, Cambridge) told the website thestudentroom.co.uk that he “wasn’t into student politics”, Ed Miliband (PPE, Oxford) has been quoted as saying that “politics motivated me more than academia.”

Even for those not wanting to be the next Prime Minister there are a number of ways to get organised on a local, grassroots level, and the opportunity to protest through a medium other than social media, to rally alongside people who are outside our own student bubbles. There are 109 universities in the UK, excluding around 133 higher education institutions that have not been given the right to call themselves a ‘university’ by the Privy Council. Out of those universities, 15 are in Scotland and with a student population that high, it seems absurd to suggest that students don’t have the potential to make a difference.

According to NUS research, 80% of students surveyed want their universities and colleges to be doing more about sustainability. Students Organising for Sustainability aims to provide a global platform for collaboration and communication where students “can work to build a sustainable future.” Similarly, the Whole Earth exhibition, a partnership between the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Hard Rain project aims to encourage young people to think about the future of the planet. But when you’re studying and struggling to make ends meet, it might not always feel possible to do your bit for the environment and it may feel like the day-to-day changes you make don’t make much of a difference.

The plight of student activists hasn’t always been easy. Queen’s University Belfast almost cancelled its conference on the Charlie Hebdo massacre on security grounds but reversed the decision following significant criticism from novelists, poets, academics and intellectuals over the cancellation of the symposium. Last year, the NUS posters calling MPs – particularly Liberal Democrats- who failed to oppose tuition fee rises “liars” were removed from train stations in England following criticism from Network Rail bosses who said that the posters were too “political.” As a result, at this year’s NUS National Conference, Conservative Party Member Leon French took himself out of the running for NUS president as a result of the campaign prior to the election, saying that there was “no point” trying to gain votes when “they’ve already decided.”

However, if done right, student protests can be successful. From taking collections, to marching through towns and cities, a surge of community activism is putting pressure on politicians, both locally and nationally, to welcome refugees – and the Guardian recently reported that it is students leading the way. At the beginning of the year, students from colleges and universities across Scotland came together to protest against the governance of Glasgow Clyde College and to call for the chair of the college’s board, George Chalmers, to stand down.

Some of the UK’s most prestigious universities have had real problems tackling racism, sexism and homophobia, and they evidently still a long way to go. Oxford union’s “colonial comeback” cocktails accompanied by posters of slaves in chains understandably raised controversy back in June. There was also the Warwick student union rep who unhooked a girl’s bra in his election campaign video, and the swastikas drawn on LGBTQ flags at UCL earlier this year. At a public talk titled “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” at University College London, a number of black scholars claimed that insidious forms of racism may explain why just 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors are black, and only 17 are black women. New research from Strathclyde University revealed that a third of all Black and Minority Ethnic Scots have faced discrimination and of the participants who said they had faced discrimination, 60% said they did report it to the police or any other authority.

It is in these cases that student activism is useful. This month is Black History Month and Last year, the London School of Economics rugby club was disbanded after publishing homophobic and sexist leaflets that called women “trollops” and “slags.” Oxford and Cambridge launched programme of compulsory sexual consent workshops for undergraduates and it is predicted that other universities will follow.

It’s not only in the UK either. Last year, Columbia University student, Emma Sulkowicz, brought a mattress with her to class every day to protest against the university’s refusal to expel her alleged rapist. Hundreds of her classmates joined her and 130 other American college campuses followed. Anti-rape demonstrations increased as colleges across the US were criticised for their handling of campus sexual-assault cases.

Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York who specializes in student activism told the New York Times that this resurgence in campus activism isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon.

The protests aren’t always related to student-specific issues. Just take the divestment campaigns, which are becoming a popular form of political activism at college campuses across the US and the UK. These efforts are aimed at convincing universities to drop their investments in controversial industries (such as fossil fuels) or corporations (such as those that side with Israel) and have little to do with on-campus issues. For instance, earlier this year, Strathclyde, Edinburgh and Caledonian University Students’ Associations passed policy on Bocott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) calling for a boycott of all companies complicit in the occupation of Palestinian territories.

“The campus environment right now has, for the past couple of years, reminded me a lot of the early- to mid-60s moment, where there was a lot of stuff happening, a lot of energy—but also a tremendous amount of disillusionment and frustration with the way that things were going in the country as a whole and on the campuses themselves,” Johnston explains.

The activism that has resulted is different, and this new chapter could trigger significant shifts in the way things are run.}