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Students, it seems, have a lot of time on their hands – or at least that’s the impression a cynic might get from reading a history of protest and radicalism. Just look at the events of 1968, anti-war protests and environmental direct action movements – disproportionately, often overwhelmingly, the critical mass is provided by students.
This shouldn’t be surprising, given that students are (at least in theory) energetic, passionate and intelligent, and uniquely situated in society to affect the world at large. This was particularly true before the introduction of fees and when students were supported by grants, but even today students are in the forefront of campaigning on issues that affect wider society, from climate change to global inequality.
Yet we in the student movement are told constantly that students are apathetic. There is something in this – the available figures on student participation in their own affairs, measured crudely by student union election turnouts, seem to suggest that the number of participants is roughly the same as ever, despite the massive increase in the student population. Those who win these elections are also often less activist-minded than they once were, with many believing that student unions should now operate more as charities, lobbying for student interests, rather than as campaigning mass-member organisations (see Hind Hassan, LINK).
This trend does not exist in a bubble. People in general feel disconnected from the decisions that affect them – as reflected in declining election turnouts and the increasing apathy that afflicts society and politics as a whole. But in order for us to be shaken from our apathy, we need someone to do the shaking. Student unions could and should build up participation among their members, which would in turn feed into greater participation in wider politics.
That is why I am sick and tired of people telling us that we cannot make a difference. I am ashamed to hear fellow student unionists say that we should focus inward on ourselves – on ‘student issues’ and nothing else. Why should there be a distinction between the issues that affect us as students and those that affect us as citizens? We are both at all times, and we should always be conscious of that.
The Iraq war, for example, is a not only a brutal assault on the people of Iraq but an attack on us as well. Our taxes are being taken away from hospitals, schools and other public services – including, of course, our universities – and used to smother the world in misery at our expense. Student unions should mobilise students and throw themselves into the anti-war movement.
When higher education is attacked, education as an entire system is attacked – and thus society is attacked. Higher education creates what some call ‘cultural capital’. It shapes the future leaders of society; it produces pioneers and new thought. If higher education is restricted to the wealthy, or to those lucky enough to go to a ‘good school’, then the future of our society – the future pioneers and new thinkers – will reflect and reproduce that inequality for another generation.
And the whole of education is under attack, from primary school to PhD. Neoliberalism sees public education as a huge source of potential profit that it has yet to privatise. The attacks on education affect students and educational workers – the academics, the teachers, the people who look after our welfare. It is through realising that our fights are not unique to us as students – that they are a product of the system and affect wider society – that we see the reason why students should be campaigning on wider social and political issues and standing in solidarity with others who take action on these issues.
This starts locally, and student unions can always do more. After all, what are universities for – or what should they be for? At the moment many are simply degree and research factories – ivory towers of academia whose work has little to do with day-to-day reality.
Universities should instead be places to equip the future generation with the knowledge, skills and passion to tackle the serious issues of the day, and to mobilise their skills to benefit the wider community and society. They should be accessible centres of learning and action, firmly embedded in their local communities and the struggles facing those around them.
Students have a proud tradition of fighting to alleviate the suffering of others. We need that tradition now more than ever.
Aled Fisher headed the Green Party’s London Assembly list for the north-east London constituency in May’s elections