This week, the National Union of Students (NUS) organised a national walk out. This day of action was presented as being a well-coordinated series of protests, the biggest of which was in London. However, on my university campus at Brunel University in West London, it was business as usual. There were no angst-ridden, angry students sticking it to the man. Nor were there organised groups travelling east to Central London. At best, there were murmurs on internet forums, but even those keyboard warriors didn’t manage to leave Facebook to protest on campus.
Many people feel politically active students are far-left anarchists committed to violently protesting against the Government. However, from what I have seen at Brunel and other universities, students from across all disciplines are disenfranchised and apathetic towards politics. Surprisingly, some of my peers who are studying politics seem to be the most apathetic of all.
That is, it seems, until a well-known public figure gets involved. On the same day as the NUS action, Brunel welcomed an impromptu visit from comedian, marathon-junkie and Labour Party activist Eddie Izzard. It was a part of Ken Livingstone’s Mayor of London campaign and was well received by students who eagerly packed the small room to see him.
His audience represented the various political persuasions which are present at Brunel and university campuses across the UK. He handled difficult questions confidently, as keen students put him to the test. In response to a question about his aspirations in politics, Izzard confirmed he would be running for election in the future, much to the delight of the audience. He said: “In 2020, I will be running for Mayor of London or MP… I will run a good campaign, and get in. I want to find out what I can do politically.”
In closing, he gave advice to students, he said: “You can choose what you want to do… Go and vote, be active, no matter what party and give a damn about yourself.”
For many, being active in student politics means protesting. Of course, legitimate protest is important, it is a legal right. It can help to attract publicity to the cause and works to unite like-minded individuals. It can produce results too, recently an organised occupy movement at Manchester University helped encourage the adoption of the living wage on its campus.
However, over recent years, protests have left students with a bitter taste in their mouth, an unpalatable connection with orchestrated violence and crime. Some have suggested the disjointed nature of student protests and the factionalism which has gripped campuses across the UK has led students to become weary of getting involved. Is it for these reasons that students don’t want to protest?
Having talked to some of those who stayed on campus on Wednesday, the reason for this is could be more ordinary, a lack publicity. They were simply unaware of any NUS action taking place. Others spoke of a desire to form their own opinions, to develop their stance on issues before launching into protest.
Whatever the reason, instead of being out in force on the streets in Central London protesting about the Government cuts, they were sat in a room engaging with a famous political activist. Does this make them less active, or less motivated?
I don’t think so. Many of those in the room were elected within the Student Union and within the University itself. Some of the students were even elected councillors in local government. If me and my fellow students are going to make a real, impactful difference to the way things work we need to look beyond protest.
I think it is just as effective to begin our activism by seeking election, organising interest groups and finding other ways to bring about change from within. This will ultimately move student activism away from sporadic London-centric protests which are proving difficult to organise and ineffective in motivating students.