Originally Published in ‘The Revolution Issue’, January 2016
In late 2010, a series of demonstrations rocked the streets of London. The protestors were students, justifiably enraged by the cuts to higher educational spending and the increase on tuition fee caps by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The November demonstrations were violently kettled by police in Whitehall and later in Trafalgar Square. In December, further protests were corralled in Parliament Square. Protestors were injured in clashes with the police and fundamentally, no real change was achieved. Government reforms went ahead, and the student protests seemed to have been subdued.
With recent history like this, one could be forgiven for imagining that student protest is wholly dead. Universities have had a vibrant history of being centres of dissident thought and engagement with radical politics, but it seems nowadays universities are hotbeds of nothing but academic anxiety and crushing debt. What’s happened to student activism?
Well, for a start, some universities have outright banned it. In 2013, the University of London – a body representing the main universities of London including the London School of Economics – banned protests on campus for six months. After a protest demanding sick pay for cleaners amongst other demands, and in which police made over 40 arrests, the university decided it was a “regrettable but necessary step” to prevent “violent and intimidating behaviour.” Students reported being “punched and kicked” by the police and campus security, so one might wonder whose violent behaviour is the main problem here. But it’s clear that student activism won’t thrive on a campus where it is literally illegal to protest.
Are there other reasons why student activism appears to be dying a silent death? Are students too busy with other things? Rising tuition fees, a terrifyingly uncertain future, unpaid internships and a scramble for jobs. A minimum wage that doesn’t pay the rent. And that’s just what’s facing students in the UK. It’s the ever present dilemma with revolutionary activity – most people are just too busy and tired from dealing with their difficult lives to make an effort to change any of it. Students may appear to have more spare time than those with a 9-5 job and a mortgage to pay, but this doesn’t mean we actually do. Students have jobs, students may have a family to support, and students have a degree to complete. Lack of time and energy alas, plays a big part in the lack of visible protest.
But fundamentally, I disagree that student revolutionary activism is dead. First of all, we need to stop looking at the UK and Western Europe as our only examples of students protesting. The Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa involved thousands of students risking arrest and death in the fight for regime change. From Syria to Egypt, university students were out on the streets with the rest of the citizens. In Alleppo, Syria in 2012, 4 students were killed and over 200 arrested after an anti-government protest in student accommodation was broken up by pro-government militia. The United States has seen student rebellion on an immense scale with the ongoing Black Lives Matter movements being taken onto campuses in response to the institutionalised racism that pervades the universities as well as the rest of the country. This September, the University of Missouri saw extensive demonstrations against anti-black racism on campus which lead to the resignation of the university’s president and the news that the chancellor would step down by the end of the year.
No doubt there are many students who have no interest at all in activism, and I don’t blame them! Activism on top of doing a full time degree is exhausting and stressful. But the idea that universities have gone from Les Miserables-style hotbeds of revolutionary fervour to depressing dead zones full of blank-eyed youths just grinding their way through their degrees is blatantly wrong. We also need to stop assuming students will only protest when it comes to student-specific issues such as tuition fees. Students have a life outside their classes, and are just as likely to be affected by austerity, authoritarian regimes and institutionalised racism as non-students.
On the campus of the University of Glasgow we have dozens of societies fighting the good fight that students are dedicating their time to. The Amnesty International Society, the Palestine Society, and the Feminist Society (to list but a few) are all active on campus and making an effort for positive change in the world. Students might not be building barricades on Byres Road or hanging out of the windows of the Queen Margaret Union with red flags whilst singing The Internationale, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no student activism on campus at all. I do believe that students such as ourselves are an invaluable part of dissident, anti-establishment movements regardless of how we choose to express our efforts. And if anyone is up for building a barricade, I’ll be there straightaway.
[Morgaine Das Varma]