Sara-Christine Gemson encourages students to stand up for what they believe inAt the end of September, the eyes of the world were riveted to the brilliantly coloured monks of Burma, risking their lives by protesting to obtain some basic rights from a brutally oppressive regime. Here in Britain, we no longer need to fight for these rights. The rights to protest, to be politically active and to express ourselves freely are taken as part of the natural order of things. But to what extent do students at Oxford actually exercise them?It’s easy to discover the activist scene in Oxford, through mailing lists, posters, Facebook groups and web sites. An even better source is the newly launched organisation OxHub, which brings together different organisations involved in local and international development. OxHub’s goal is to provide resources to facilitate the work of existing student-run charities, whilst also encouraging new students to get involved. As Adam O’Boyle, the manager of OxHub, explains, “The Oxford prospectus says Oxford is a great place for students to get an education, and to get involved in sport and arts. We would like to add charity work to that list.” The idea for OxHub came from a similar organisation already in existence at Cambridge University. In the decentralised context of the collegiate system, there is a pressing need to provide a focal point for the activism and charity work that takes places. Ritu Patwari, the president of the University of Oxford’s Amnesty International group, asserts the need for OxHub. “The decentralised college environment is a big factor. It means that it’s very difficult to get people involved in student activism.” This obstacle is only one of many. While the proliferation of posters, the well populated mailing lists, Facebook groups, and the professionally designed web sites may give the impression of a politically active and involved student population, the reality is quite different. Speaking to the heads of different groups, the same refrain is always repeated. Mark Darby, president of the Oxford Aegis Society, a group that campaigns against genocide, summarises the state of student participation: “People might be interested or aware, but not many are willing to make the extra effort to campaign or get involved.” Ritu adds that “Especially at Oxford, people are willing to discuss things theoretically, but they don’t do anything practical about it.” It can be disappointing to discover that the expectations and the publicity misrepresent the true state of activism at Oxford. Hizami Mohdiskandar came to the University from Malaysia to study law. He has been involved in a number of politically active societies, most notably as the president of the Free Burma Society. However, his experience so far has not lived up to his expectations. “When I came here I thought ‘this is Oxford, everyone is going to be political; everyone is going to care about causes. JCRs are going to be passing political motions all the time.’ Of course, this isn’t the case.” For some, it’s not just a lack of action but actual uninterest. Aisling MacSweeney is the secretary of the Palestine Society. “The disappointing thing is that the vast majority of students remain quite apathetic and even prefer not to take a political opinion.”There are various explanations for the lack of student involvement, the most likely being the lack of time. Mandisa Mbali, co-chair of Stop Aids, is sympathetic to those who cry off political activism due to time constraints. “There are a lot of people who want to support causes but with the pressures of the eight week term at Oxford, some simply don’t have the time.” In some cases, the lack of involvement is a more strategic calculation; a fear of having your name tied to a specific cause. Ritu has come across this problem many times. “People can be really interested in issues and they’ll discuss them and they’ll even come to events. But when you ask them to sign a letter, they’ll say ‘I don’t want to sign my name’ or ‘I don’t want to give my address.’ It’s good that people won’t just sign anything, but when people agree that something is wrong but they aren’t willing to put their names down, I think it’s odd.” Alternatively, they’re scared of upsetting potential employers. Mark faced this problem trying to get students to sign the UBS petition, which aims to push UBS to stop underwriting PetroChina’s investments in Darfur. Some students won’t sign because they are worried that it might affect their future careers in investment banking. Socially, there may also be a certain stigma attached to being politically active. Aisling has faced hostility from other students for her activism. “I often find quite a negative attitude towards activism – like somehow I feel I have to explain myself to people for being involved in issues where there might be disagreement.” Adam also identifies a lack of mentoring on the part of professors at Oxford. “Tutors often don’t take a paternal role in politicising students. Their aim is to give us a well-rounded education but not necessarily to push us…to be socially conscious.”
More generally, there seems to be an increasing hesitation on the part of JCRs and MCRs to go beyond welfare issues by passing motions on politically sensitive causes. Officially, OUSU encourages them to take a stance. Claire Addison, the Vice President for Charities and Communities, gives OUSU’s position. “JCRs and MCRs are independent and it’s up to the individual members of common rooms to decide which policies are adopted. However, OUSU wishes to encourage debate and dialogue on all issues that are being discussed by the Student Union and so it would often be appropriate to discuss political motions in order for their representatives at OUSU Council to be properly representative of their common room’s student body.” However, during a JCR meeting at Pembroke at the end of October, there was debate over the legitimacy of passing motions on non-student related issues.Geoff Cameron is president of the Oxford University Baha’i Society, and is currently campaigning for the rights of Baha’is in Iran who are being denied access to higher education. He disagrees with categorically refusing to discuss any matters not directly related to student welfare. “I understand that JCRs and MCRs want to be focused on matters that concern students. But students, particularly at a university like Oxford, are not only concerned with themselves. They have an interest in the world. And student bodies, as collective organisations, can also exercise some power by expressing their views on international issues.” Mandisa echoes the importance of JCRs and MCRs in this role, arguing that there is no better place than Oxford to become politically active. ‘We have all the resources of Oxford at our disposal so I think we should debate issues. Not to do so is to abdicate moral responsibility as intellectuals and as students. You can’t see the University as a sort of degree sausage factory.”This lack of involvement is a source of concern to many of the activists. Adam is particularly concerned about the future. “If students aren’t politicised now, they never will be. You can’t wait ten years from now to get involved. At that point, people will be entrenched in their lifestyles; change will be too hard then. The more it’s delayed, the less likely it’s going to happen.” Hizami also worries about future generations. “If we don’t create an activist environment now, then the students who follow us won’t do it either. And there won’t be an activist core growing up. In many ways, the world needs activists now even more than in the seventies.” Making the current generation conscious of social and political problems is especially pertinent in a university where many are likely to go on to “great things.” The Oxford Aegis Society branch was started by the national organisation two years ago because they recognised the importance of reaching future leaders while young. Mark explains the importance of raising awareness with Oxford students. “They are going to be in positions of power twenty years down the line…hopefully they’ll remember to do the right thing.” However, while those involved agree that the situation isn’t ideal, they say they still have it easier than their counterparts at most other universities. Mark points out that Oxford’s eclectic mix of student bodies means that there are at least some people interested in even the lesser known causes. “You can have an obscure event like a film on the Guatemalan conflict in Spanish here and people will come. In another city you’d only get one person showing up. It’s easier to find a niche here.” The impression that students are becoming less involved and more apathetic is perhaps a false one. For certain causes, there may even be an increase in interest and involvement in the last few decades. This is what Paul Martin, a lecturer in politics and a student here in the early nineties, has observed. “I don’t honestly see a massive change overall. I do think that there are a lot more students involved in international politics issues nowadays – I’ve taught a lot of undergraduates who’ve been involved in the anti-war movement, the Palestine solidarity campaign, and so on.” Claire also mentions considerable success for campaigns promoting the anti-Trident movement, and highlighting the Darfur crisis. She explains that it’s important to look at student activism from a broader perspective. “These things tend to go in cycles. Activism takes many shapes and forms and right now the trend seems to be for very specific issues, running individual campaigns and particularly events.”The motivating factor behind the first step into campaigning varies from one activist to another. Geoff’s motivation is deeply personal. “I’m a Baha’i so I happen to know about the situation of the Baha’is. As a student and a member of the University, I feel I have a moral obligation to let others know about the situation affecting my co-religionists.” Aisling’s involvement dates back to her pre-Oxford days. “I originally got involved in campaigning for Palestine when I was at school. I started off in the anti-war movement, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the Israel/Palestine conflict was at the heart of the so-called “divide” between Islam and the West. I realised that without a just resolution for Palestine, there would never be an end to the “war on terror” or the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and peace would never be achievable.”For some, it was a slippery slope into activism. They showed up to a meeting and gradually got more involved. Ritu started out in a minimally committed position, then found herself helping out other committee members, participating in different events, and before she knew it, she was president of the Amnesty society. Others were guided into activism. Adam was lucky enough to have a few mentors who put him on the right path. “I was made to realise that in the long run my time and skills were more valuable than my money, which was was a substantial factor in shaping plans for my career.”To talk to these student activists is to be swept up in their passion, their energy, and their firm belief that they can change the world. Hizami is unshakable in his belief in the power of the individual. “One person goes out there, learns about something, talks to someone else, changes someone’s mind. That person goes out and does the same thing. That’s how change happens.” Having seen first-hand the difference that aid activism has made in her native South Africa, Mandisa can’t help but be motivated to keep fighting for her cause. “You can see change and it makes you think ‘Wow! I’m actually not powerless!’ As an ordinary citizen, working with other ordinary citizens, we can actually change things from the bottom up. That’s the real meaning of democracy and that’s why I wish more people would get involved in activism.” Geoff thinks that Oxford students are in a particularly influential place. “When student bodies or colleges or the University itself issues statements that are very clear-cut morally and ethically, I think people are more likely to listen because of the international stature of the University. The connections it maintains throughout the world via its students makes Oxford an international institution with international responsibilities.” Those responsibilities apply to its students as much as to its staff. These three years are the best chance you’ll have to make a difference. Get involved.