A bleak future for student protest

first_imgAt the end of last month six students at the University of Lancaster were found guilty, in a magistrates’ court, of taking part in a peaceful demonstration against companies linked to the arms trade who held a conference on the campus in late 2004. The University decided to press charges of aggravated trespass against their own students.The George Fox Six, as the arrested students have become known, were exercising their right to free speech just as generations of students have done for decades across the country. If the case of the Lancaster students, whose seemingly harmless crime was to hand out leaflets and hold up banners, is to be taken as a precedent, the rights of students throughout Britain to protest could be in jeopardy.This is particularly the case in Oxford where the University owns so much land. One of the Lancaster student protesters commented on his university’s situation: “The University has a duty to allow and even facilitate the expression of views opposing unethical companies and the University’s involvement with them.It is wrong, and in the long term counter-productive, for an academic institution to ignore such concerns, let alone to prosecute those who raise them.” In the wake of a New Labour convention which attempted to set limits on democracy and freedom of speech, and in an age in which the public is banned from protesting within a kilometre of parliament, as students we must ask whether our voice is been taken away from us. And if it is, do we really care? Other universities do seem to protest better than Oxford.While only a small number of Oxford students protested earlier in the year against Reed Elsevier’s connection with the arms trade, the action which took place at Lancaster has galvanised their student body into protest. Perhaps we simply need a few student heroes in Oxford in order to avoid the extinction of student activism.Yet with less than half a per cent of Oxford’s considerable student body turning up to Examination Schools to protest against the introduction of top-up fees, they seem unlikely to emerge. At least those who did protest in 2004 managed to get the University to cancel lectures on the day of the march and the contingent of Oxford students who joined the Stop the War march succeeded in keeping the words ‘Oxford student’ and ‘protest’ in the same sentence in the local press.Yet other universities sent much bigger groups than Oxford. The question to be asked is whether Oxford students still feel that they have the power to make a difference, or even whether they care enough to protest about social issues affecting them. Oxford today is synonymous with animal rather than human rights issues and the student population seems curiously detached from the world around them.Student campaigning does not have to be limited to ‘student issues’, but has traditionally related immediate concerns to wider issues of human rights and international solidarity. This seems to have been forgotten in the present student political climate. Is the age of student protest coming to an end? Have students become dulled into deference? Without doubt, the glory days of student protest in Britain were in the sixties and then again in the eighties.The real beginning could perhaps be dated to 1965 when the birth of the new polytechnics and universities saw student numbers increase to about 300,000. Britain was suddenly overwhelmed with a new wave of students who had voices, and these students wanted universities and governments to listen to them.They were angry, and they were determined to get their concerns addressed and protect their freedom. This period saw the formation of the Radical Student Alliance (RSA) and then an organisation called the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign which organised student protest throughout the country seemingly far more effectively than the more recent Stop the War campaign. University sit-ins were commonplace at universities all over the country. Our parents’ generation looks nostalgically back to these sixties demonstrations and the mark they made. If they were in Grosvenor Square in 1967 they will wax lyrical about the part they played in stopping the Vietnam War.But perhaps they had an advantage: they were helped by a groundswell of student protest across Europe and more importantly across the United States. British students were protesting in the sixties at a time when the rest of the world was also demanding to be listened to. The Vietnam protests coincided with student support for the Civil Rights Movement and protests about freedom of information in many UK universities.The fact that Jack Straw and Charles Clarke were probably marching around at the same time chanting “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” is pretty disillusioning given their recent role in invading Iraq. But in 1968 students all over the world were protesting and having a real effect on governments. These students certainly weren’t as apathetic as our generation.President Lyndon Johnson was so shocked by the wave of student protests in his country that he told a friend, “I felt that I was been chased on all sides by a giant stampede. I was being forced over the edge by ration blacks, demonstrating students, marching welfare mothers, squawking professors and hysterical reporters.”1968 was the year when the scent of student revolution could be smelt all over the world. Not just the university system but the government itself was rocked in France when students in Paris took to the barricades and were joined by striking workers.In Germany student radicalism spawned the Baader-Meinhof group, the most feared terrorist cell in mainland Europe. In Britain the days of student marching, protesting, demonstrating and campaigning reoccurred in the eighties at Greenham Common with demonstrations, particularly by women, against nuclear warheads in the UK.Later, in 1989, there were huge marches against the poll tax. These were the years in which most of us were born. Perhaps we have some vague childhood memories of chants of “Maggie Maggie Maggie out out out!” and remember that although the poll tax went, the Conservative government certainly did not. Student grants were cut and replaced by student loans.Students were just not important any more. They didn’t even bother to vote. Recently, the National Union of Students and, more specifically, their president, Kat Fletcher, have faced huge criticism for an apparent lack of interest in student activism and for backing down over the issue of top- up fees.The NUS has lost the will to campaign and perhaps to even exist, as was aptly illustrated by the postponement of the annual conference this year. When the conference finally did meet it was cut from four to three days – not a great demonstration of a union bursting with energy and anger on behalf of students.In addition the NUS is currently £700,000 in debt. Debt may have become part of the student experience but for the NUS it reflects a declining membership, ironic when student numbers are rising. Recently Fletcher has joined a government information campaign to promote the policy of top-up fees and has pledged to “build an effective opposition to the student left”.This stance might come as a surprise to many students who see the NUS as a left-wing representational body for students across the country. What other union backs the government in worsening the conditions of its members? Frustrated by these proceedings by the NUS, daniel Randall has founded an alternative platform for student activism called Education Not For Sale. On the subject of Fletcher and the NUS, Randall commented, “Since [the creation of the new group], she has made numerous attacks on democracy and accountability within NUS, slashing funding for National Executive members, reducing the size of annual National Conference and cutting it to less than three days.She and the clique around her, many of them former left-wingers, have done nothing to restore a campaigning link between the NUS structures and the students they are supposed to represent. They have refused to organise a fight to repair the years of damage inflicted by right-wing government policy.” If the NUS executive have become apologists for a government which has inflicted top-up fees on students and cannot organise effective campaigning is it any wonder that students throughout the UK feel frustrated? While it is certain that protest does still exist in Oxford, Oxford students are nevertheless right to feel politically impotent.The government and many leading members of the cabinet who were themselves at the forefront of student politics seem to utterly ignore the concerns of today’s student population. Perhaps we cannot make a difference but at least some Oxford students still try to concern themselves with other things than the bar prices across town. There was for instance an anti-capitalist protest outside the Said Business School in August with a handful of protesters.In July protesters were outside Tesco on Cowley Road on behalf of Polish workers in Ireland. A contingent of Oxford students were in Scotland over the summer for the G8 summit, although once again other universities sent greater numbers. A small number of students protested about animal rights outside Thomas Cook in September while others joined the much larger protests against the University.Last week Oxford CNd were urging students to join the downing Street Peace Camp formed by mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq as a sad sequel to that Stop the War march to which Oxford students contributed only a handfull of students to in 2003. Perhaps Oxford relies on the Oxford Union as its voice of protest. Indeed the Union says on its web pages that it is at the cutting edge of controversy, however it then cites the last time it made a national impact as 1975 – before most of us here were born.Some of the debates held at the Union do certainly seem to stir up controversy, and even in the past month protesting students have had to be removed from an address by President Mogae of Botswana who is accused of persecuting the Bushmen of Botswana. Oxford students do, however, seem to petition more effectively than protest: over 2000 signatures were gathered from students and dons to protest against the decision to go to war with Iraq. Similarly the petition against Margaret Thatcher following her decision to cut academic funding for universities resulted in her being the only post-war Oxford educated Prime Minister not to receive an honourary degree.But these petitions seem to pale into insignificance when compared to the mass protests of the sixties. If you feel it is about time you became a student protester then the opportunities arecertainly waiting for you in the University. The Oxford Student Activist network and the Oxford Action Resource centre on Cowley Road will tell you what you can protest about, where to go and what to do. Forthcoming events include a Campaign Against Climate Change demonstration in London on 3 december.A hundred people have attended the first Oxford planning meeting, and the protest is to include a bicycle ride through London. It will be interesting to see how successful the event is. If the London demonstration and other future protests fail, and the mindsets of students do not change soon then universities, and indeed Britain, will have lost a very potent campaigning political voice.Our apathy means that not only will the issues which students are concerned with continue to be ignored, but that the glory days and direct action of the sixties will recede further into the past.ARCHIVE: 3rd week MT 2005last_img read more