Strath Union has launched a new initiative to engage more students in the processes surrounding student campaigning.
The ‘Action Groups’ are formed through open meetings where students interested in certain topics can join forces and brainstorm about potential campaign strategies.
Student campaigning has remained an active part of Strathclyde’s campus culture despite the shift towards online learning. Strath Union recently launched two campaigns during Black History Month and also launched the ‘We Stand With Students’ campaign as more and more students are coming forward with their concerns about the University’s handling of the pandemic.
Current ‘Action Groups’ include a Mental Health Action Group, Template Action Group, Housing Action Group, Cost of Learning Action Group, and a Sustainability Action Group.
So far all meetings have been held digitally as access to campus remains restricted in accordance with government guidelines.
More information and upcoming meetings can be found at https://www.strathunion.com/voice/actiongroups/
Our writer Yousuf Khursheed reflects on the current challenges student campaigning faces in times of Covid-19 and sat down with VP Welfare Benn Rapson to discuss the new action groups and the possibilities of how to keep campaigning an active part of student life at Strathclyde.
Covid-19 and Student Campaigning – A Legacy in Jeopardy?
Interview and Analysis by Yousuf Khursheed
Student campaigning has always been influential, even the words “Student Activism” carry considerable history, pedigree and power. The Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution, the 1968 German Student Movement and the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China all are events that echo through the ages. Still, the student-led struggle continues to this day, as we hear news from Thailand and Hong Kong of protest in the face of tyranny.
However, while I read the headlines over my Weetabix each morning I cannot help but feel that in the UK all this is in danger. The coronavirus pandemic is posing a fresh threat to student activism. Sure, we have seen recent campaigns focused on the Black Lives Matter Movement, campus lockdowns and tuition fees but as the saying from Game of Thrones goes – “winter is coming”. Though the effects of temperature on Covid19 transmission are still up for scientific debate, there is no arguing that case numbers are currently rising and restrictions are being reimposed. So, with demonstrations, marches and crowded events looking less and less likely I started to wonder – could Covid silence student voices?
The answer to this is apparently not. At the University of Strathclyde a new initiative has been launched, the Strath Union Action Groups. This string of associations aims to raise awareness and campaign on particular issues within the university and beyond. An ambitious objective, but just how do these groups work? What specifically do they plan to accomplish? And most importantly how do they plan to operate throughout the pandemic?
Armed with these questions I met with Benn Rapson – the Vice President of Welfare at Strathclyde’s Student’s Union who is one of the thinkers behind the new initiative:
What is the general basis of the Strath Union Action Groups?
“Action Groups are membership-based organisations that organise student-led campaigns. In order for a student to get involved with an Action Group that takes their interest, they simply need to become a member of the Action Group via the Strath Union website. Action Groups organise around a specific theme. For example, you would not have an Action Group solely dedicated to the campaign to scrap Circuit Laundry but that would sit under a thematic Action Group focussed on the Cost of Learning. Action Groups are founded by members of the Student Executive, who will take a leading role in the group, but ultimately their direction and campaigns are led by the students who join the Action Group.”
What are the different Action Groups that have been established?
“Currently three Action Groups have been established, these are the; Cost of Learning Action Group, Student Housing Action Group, and the Mental Health Action Group. There are two further Action Groups currently in planning stages; the Climate Emergency Action Group and one focussed on student jobs. The currently launched Action Groups along with the group focussed on jobs sit within my remit, with the Climate Emergency one being developed by our VP Community.”
What are the goals of these different Action Groups?
“The reason I’ve created Action Groups is to get more students involved in grassroots campaigns at Strath Union. In the past our campaigns have at times been very much led from the top, from the Executive Officers, this isn’t always a bad thing but I want to see more campaigns where we empower our members to take the lead on the issues.”
How are these Action Groups going to work during these tricky Covid19 stricken times?
“You would think that Covid-19 would make things harder when trying to get something like an Action Group moving but I actually see it as an opportunity. Having to operate online has actually made activism more accessible. A lot of our students at Strathclyde commute and this means that traditionally activity in the evenings is less accessible. By running activities online and exploring digital activism and campaigning – we can actually include more voices, which is really beneficial.”
Lastly, why is student campaigning so important?
“Student campaigns are really important. Student campaigns change things more often than they do not. You only have to look at the campaign to Abolish Graduation Fees or scrap the Zero Marks policy within HaSS to see that. A strong, informative, and emotive, campaign can make the University move on issues that they otherwise would not move on by relying on the lobbying of the Student Executive alone. Tuition Fees during Covid-19 is a real example of this, as a Student Executive over the summer we have pushed hard for a fairer fees policy, but the University has barely moved – although they have brought in Covid-19 Scholarships for specific cases of hardship – and is unwilling to do fee reductions across the board. If we could energise our entire student body around this issue – I think it would be more likely that we would see greater movement by the University!”
Coronavirus is no idle opponent and only time will tell if these action groups will be a success story. However, Benn’s enthusiasm and attention to detail lead me to believe that this new initiative will catch attention. Through online organisation, keen desire for change and ambitious plans to increase participation the Strath Union Action Groups may well turn the student voice into a student shout. So while times are tough this winter it seems possible that despite the odds at the University of Strathclyde the prestige and pedigree of student activism will continue to expand.