Student Apathy

Mention Tiananmen Square and the first thing that comes to mind is the image of a lone man, standing strong against the oncoming tanks. The anti-Vietnam protests which swept across America in the 1970s will be forever remembered by the Kent State University shootings, the victims of which were students protesting on campus. Even in England, think of the opening scene from the film Human Traffic and you’re met with the footage of students surging against the gates of Downing Street in the early 90s, battling with the very boundaries of the state. Throughout history the student body has been on the front line of political movements, the vanguard of revolutionary action, providing a wave of energy and momentum on which many a protest has ridden. This seems only natural considering the freedom of expression and of intellectual thought the scholastic environment of university supposedly cultivates.

But aside from the rubbish-strewn streets emitting an odour that could not be covered by the wafts from a nearby patisserie (the dustmen were also on strike), what struck me most was the mass mobilisation of the youth. It was the students who were at the forefront of the demonstrations, marching on behalf of their elders. Likewise it was the embittered faces of the undergrads, frustrated by a government which would not listen to its younger citizens, which coloured every front page in France. I was inspired, swept along by their infectious political awareness. If this were England, we would have barely batted an eyelid at the increase. Retirement? That’s inspires about as much militancy as our ever-increasing overdrafts.
But flash forwards a couple of weeks and this is England. Following the recent proposal of raising the cap on tuition fees and cutting university funding, it seems that finally we have taken a leaf out of our European neighbours’ book, with over 50,000 students attending a staged demonstration in London. Yet is the apathy that has plagued our generation of students really lifting? And if so, what will be the consequences of this new found political activism?

The ‘Millbank’ protest, as it will probably come to be known, was the first student-centric demonstration in England organised en masse since the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994. Back then students were fighting for their right to party – the legislation was the first to ban parties in open air where there were more than a hundred people, rendering raves illegal. But now the stakes are even higher, will British students awake once more from their rave-induced slumber and fight for their right to study? Looking at the figures from Nottingham’s attendance at the demo alone, it would appear the answer is perhaps ‘No’. Out of a potential 33,000 students at the university who could have attended, the Facebook event showed only 452 ‘attending’ and, according to the Student’s Union, only 220 actually signed up and paid their £10 to travel down to London on the day. Despite this, SU President Will Vickers states he was pleased with the turn out “given the timescale”. But the NUS had been planning this national demonstration since August – surely the average student’s schedule isn’t that booked up?

Blaming poor attendance entirely on logistics doesn’t quite wash. Yes, the demonstration was a 2 hour coach journey away; yes it required a 7am start (notoriously difficult for the average student) but in the face of these devastating cuts to our education, these small inconveniences pale into insignificance. Instead, perhaps it is the very mentality of our student culture that needs to be readdressed. These crippling changes will not come into affect until 2012, by which point the majority of current students will be either long gone, plunged into the chaotic world of graduate (un)employment, or on the home straight in Hallward. The temptation, therefore, is or students to sit back and do nothing, as the proposed plans will not encroach upon their respective backyards. The ‘it doesn’t affect me’ mentality that so often turns people off protests – like deleting a round-robin charity email or skimming past the article on orphans in Grazia – only serves to continue the cycle of discontent.

Of course, there is the argument – favoured in particular by the media – that even when we drag ourselves out of apathy, it is a futile effort. Due to the very nature of mobilised masses, protests often pass under the radar if carried out without a dramatic event of some description, such as the actions of a small minority of Demo 2010 protesters who smashed the windows of the Conservative HQ. However, looking back to the anti-Israeli occupation sit-in that took place on our very own campus in 2009, it was the very definition of a peaceful protest. The students occupied the Law and Social Sciences building for several days, playing music and receiving pea soup passed through the windows unbeknownst to the rather bemused security guards. Eventually it came to an end with students being forcibly removed from the premises, but at no point did it descend into chaos. Ok, so this student protest obviously did not end the Gaza conflict, nor did they receive the free scholarships for Palestinian students that they had requested, but the sit-in did gain huge attention from the media and served to heighten the awareness of the issue both on campus and off. It even gained recognition on a national scale from prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky. Surely if we can rally round on behalf of the people in the Middle East, we can muster the energy to raise our placards against issues on our home turf?

Even after having cast our votes and exercising our political rights, many feel let down by the most recent General Election. Given the complete renege on certain party policies (yes, I’m looking you Clegg) this is hardly surprising. Even when we had the chance to voice our opinions via the vote, it seems that no one was really listening. Perhaps it is a disease of disillusionment rather than apathy that so badly afflicts us; either way, we now have the chance to remedy this. The student body is awakening in England, slowly realising that it’s slept through a lot more than a lecture. By burying our heads in the sand now, at so crucial a moment as during this weak coalition government, we’re doing a disservice to not only the future generation of students, but to ourselves. If French students can get riled up about retirement, then surely we can refuse the reforms that are going to affect not just our children, but our younger brothers and sisters. If not we risk merely adding another weight to the ever-increasing ‘saddle of debt’. It’s somewhat like social Buckaroo. And we all know how that game ends.

Daisy Mash

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4 Comments on this post.
  • Anna
    22 January 2011 at 09:23
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    I think this article is forgetting that a fair proportion of students simply couldn’t go to the protests due to attending lectures etc. Student nurses & midwives who make up 10% of the student population could not simply miss a lecture or a shift on placement to go. I think there are other factors which explain why students didn’t attend than simply apathy.

  • Joe
    23 January 2011 at 09:44
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    Yes, why should a student have to go to the inconveience of missing a lecture, and copying up the notes later from someone else, in order for them to stand up and to fight for something they believe in. I agree, the headline figures on apathy do not take into consideration anyone who would have actually have had to make some sort of sacrifice.

  • dan
    27 January 2011 at 03:50
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    The lack of response to this good article might say enough and maybe about Impact too.

    Joe, I think Anna meant that they have a register and have to turn up everytime. That said I think many didnt bother to go because its a middle class uni and they generally dont think beyond the new iphone release.

  • David
    11 February 2011 at 01:51
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    I’m quite torn on this one really.

    I think it’s incredibly short-sighted to label anyone that didn’t go to the protest/participate in a sit-in/etc as someone who is apathetic towards the rise in tuition fees. Most importantly perhaps is that it is entirely possible to believe that action in this sense isn’t particularly productive, and who feel that lobbying MPs on issues and so on is a better use of time. I personally feel that you need people doing both, but I can just imagine how ridiculous the more ‘active’ activists would find the assertion that they don’t care about things just because they don’t approach them in a way that others approve of.

    And then there’s the more practical concerns like lectures to go to, not being able to afford to go (I get the feeling that if there’s a reply to this post, this will be the point picked up on – believe it or not there ARE students who can’t just afford £10 at the drop of a hat, however important the cause), and even just a potential lack of awareness that there was even an option to go to London with the SU.

    But on the other hand, as a student that is somewhat engaged I find it incredibly hard to deny that a hell of a lot of students here are apathetic. I have no idea how true it is, but when I started here as an undergrad I heard the rumour that we were the only UK University which has a student body that didn’t protest against the Vietnam war in some way. True or not, there is an undoubted lack of concern with large events which seems endemic at the Uni.

    Is social class a part of it? Probably. But I can think of people from a well off, private school background who went to the protest, and who are involved in fighting the rise in fees on an ongoing basis, and people from a very working class background who didn’t even consider it.

    Is it a ‘it doesn’t matter to me, I’ll have left’ attitude? Again, probably, and this one possibly has more weight. Uni life in general tends to be pushed as a very ‘look out for number one’ experience, when both the Uni and the SU push CV building, grade chasing and career development as top priorities, alongside the widespread fear that there are less and less jobs for graduates to go into – Students are very much encouraged to think of themselves, and themselves alone.

    But I also think that part of it is that the the knowledge that our political institutions have a unique way of responding to large-scale public demonstration – they ignore it. And they do so in the knowledge that when they ignore it, protests either largely go away, or they turn violent – When they do it’s then the violence that becomes the story and support, both from those within the movement who aren’t comfortable with violent forms of protest, and from the wider public, starts to be eroded.

    I could continue, but basically it’s FAR more complicated than just a simple sweeping statement that ‘students who don’t do the same things that I do, and don’t have the same attitudes that I have are apathetic’ allows for, and I personally think that’s exactly the kind of divisive attitude that serves to push some people away from being more involved.

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