Do you give a shit? Impact investigates student activism

You might have a decent understanding of modern politics, but do you actually care? Historically, student movements have been in the vanguard of countless social movements – from revolutionary socialism to civil rights, students have held the banner of change high.

Obviously the time for grabbing a musket and taking to the barricades with Hugh Jackman has long passed, but are students still at the forefront of political activism? Or have Nottingham students lost their fire?

Believe it or not, older generations knew how to get angry – the mobilisation of the student movement in the 60s and 70s was on a massive scale. The French student protests of 1968 resulted in over 11 million French workers going on strike, which essentially froze the country’s economy for two weeks.

British students were also exceedingly active; organisations such as the Radical Student Alliance helped construct a culture of activism, centered on issues such as racism and the Vietnam War. A march against the war in 1968 resulted in 80,000 students fighting a pitched battle with police in the streets of London, complete with full on cavalry charges.

Only 27% of surveyed students have ever actually participated in a public protest.

The student movements of fifty years ago were sustained by anger at injustice, and a belief that our society could be changed for the better. Does this still hold true?

There are a variety of politically engaged societies and organisations within the University of Nottingham, ranging from party politics to issue based activist groups. From Amnesty International to the Young Greens, there are plenty of opportunities to make a difference whilst at University.

It may seem surprising then, that in a survey conducted by IMPACT, we found that less than a quarter of students have joined, or are planning to join, a political group. This lack of enthusiasm is reflected in our underwhelming participation in public protests.

There is no shortage of demonstrations in this city; in 2011 the Occupy movement camped outside the Council House for six months, and police records reveal that Market Square has hosted 21 protests in the last year alone. However, IMPACT found that only 27% of UoN students have ever actually participated in a public protest.

These statistics don’t shine a positive light on our activist credentials – most of us have seemingly lost our desire for change. This sentiment is echoed by first year student Vlad Tomes, a member of the Nottingham Socialist Party. He tells us: “People don’t care. The radical student seems to have disappeared.”

“As the economic crisis deepens, people will start to see an impact on their lives, which should push them to get more angry,” he added.

79% agreed that it was important for students to be involved with political protests.

It can be easy to hold a negative perspective on modern student activism, but this ignores significant signs that students actually do still care. In IMPACT’S survey, 79% agreed that it was important for students to be involved with political protests, and 61% said that they believe students are an influential source of social change in Britain.

Some Nottingham students are enacting this belief on campus. On the 7th of October the Amnesty International Society protested around University Park in support of the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band. Their protest formed the foundation of a video campaign, filmed in a similar vein to the infamous ‘Punk Prayer’ video which led to Pussy Riot’s imprisonment.

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The campaign was well received – Vice President Natalie Popow said that she was “pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who showed an interest.”

She added: “Doing something eye catching like this generates a lot of interest from students. Not only that, on a more selfish level it was a lot of fun dancing around in the middle of the day on campus!”

It is wrong to paint students as apathetic. It’s unfair.

This is student activism on a small scale. The most striking illustration of what modern students are capable of has to be the nationwide protests against the tuition fee rise in 2010, where an estimated 52,000 protesters hit the streets of London. A lot of Nottingham students were involved at the time – of the students who told us they’d been involved in demonstrating, 1/3 participated in the fees protests.

This shows the extent to which student activism can be mobilised.  “One can go back a very short time and see that there’s a lot of activism by young people,” Sociology Professor and co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University, John Holmwood, says. “It is wrong to paint students as apathetic. It’s unfair.”

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However, student activism isn’t just comprised of banner waving and crude clashes with the police- many of the important victories of the 60s and 70s were born of other means. During the 1970s the Feminist Movement helped bring about massive legal changes, with legislation like the Equal Pay Act (1970) and Sex Discrimination Act (1975).

The spirit of those campaigners is very much alive in Nottingham. This year the UoN’s feminist campaign group was founded by two third year students Jo Estrin and Francesca Garforth. The group aims to promote feminism within the University and remove any stigma attached to the ‘F-Word’. When we asked them about how they were received, they said: “The reaction to us was originally mixed. We had some people admit they were confused by the concept, but then when we chatted to them they would often ‘get it’.”

Students can be activists without stomping their feet and shouting through megaphones.

The cynics are few and far between though; 83% of those surveyed have a positive stance towards feminism. Jo and Francesca have no intention of attacking the remaining 17%. “We’re not going to shout people down or argue with them, there’s no real point to it,” they said. “We’d rather do campaigns that resonate with people.”

They may not be taking to the streets with placards and megaphones, but they’re making a difference in their own way. Modern activism doesn’t have to be about shouting slogans at Parliament, particularly with regards to feminism. The problems facing women today are of a different nature to those facing generations past.

Self-proclaimed male feminist Professor Jem Bloomfield linked this to the nature of modern lad culture: “There’s been a definite backlash against feminism. In some ways it’s more difficult to deal with, it’s very unlikely that someone will say ‘women have smaller brains’ or ‘women shouldn’t be in certain professions’. They will say ‘oh, can’t you take a joke? It’s just banter’.”

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When faced with newer, more insidious forms of sexism, it is perhaps not surprising that modern student feminism is fighting back in far subtler ways.

To compare the activism of forty years ago with today seems unnecessary and unfair. The problems that exist today are different, and as such, the methods required to bring them into public discussion must be diverse. Students can be activists without stomping their feet and shouting through megaphones. As Jo says, “We wouldn’t say we’re angry. We’re passionate. There’s a difference.”

When faced with newer, more insidious forms of sexism, it is perhaps not surprising that modern student feminism is fighting back in far subtler ways.

Students still have the desire to make a difference – from the nationwide attempt to halt the fee rise, to the widespread support of the new feminist group, it is clear that we still have teeth. Few of us may have physically hit the streets, but this doesn’t mean we’ve become apathetic.

Students may not be as ‘radical’ as the 60s and 70s, but that doesn’t mean the desire for change has completely vanished. As Professor John Holmwood told us, “There are a significant number of students who are politically active. But I wouldn’t call them angry- I’d call them optimistic.”

Will Hazell and Emily Shackleton

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Images: Phil John, James Mitchell, Matt Baldry, Victoria Sawyer



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