Debate: Does student activism need reinvigorating?

Yes

We attend a university where every institutional contour seems designed to fragment us. It is our misfortune that the student political scene is fractured between walled-off colleges. While there is a vibrant presence on both sides, the right-left divide at Oxford has settled into a distinctly poisonous partition, with no middle ground.

It is not hard to see how political life at university is impoverished, when one set of people run the Union and a completely different group dominate OUSU. However, what unites both groups is the isolation and apathy that political activists often face, in a university full of people who fail to share their outlook and passion.

Given this situation, the creation of the Oxford Activist Network (OAN) seems set to be a major step forward. Although the group is still defining itself, it is fair to describe the spirit of the OAN as left wing, which is the product of several activist networks coming together in recent weeks. But its creation should give hope to more than just its ideological kin, because it represents the return of coalition-building to the centre of student political life.

This is a crucial change. Behind Oxford’s present political dysfunction is the fact that effective communication channels, which involve the entire student population, are vanishing. OUSU’s inability to be taken seriously by its constituency has been particularly self-evident with last term’s election campaigns, while the Union’s well-known biases (not to mention the cost of membership) undermines its claim to be an university- wide political society.

The student press have followed the lead of scandal-obsessed national newspapers, while the university’s political organisations acquiesce to this by organising their discourse around each term’s inevitable list of such incidents. I’m not playing down the importance of calling out bad practices as a legitimate part of discourse, but more needs to be done. Political expression in Oxford has lately been bound together by the consolidation of larger, more institutionally complex organisations, and this will only get worse as long as university-wide political communication weakens.

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By allowing our political infrastructure to rot, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to have our say, as students, in the conditions under which our generation will work and live. And there is an even uglier moral consequence to this collective decision. We are not depriving ourselves, so much as those in power are depriving us. Perhaps this callous attitude is symptomatic of the age, but it is given every encouragement by the failure of student politics to build a broad-based discourse.

The OAN has the ability to achieve a lot. It’s a reminder of how much student politics has stagnated. The ability of activists to communicate to a wide audience has been circumscribed. OAN needs to interact dynamically with the student community, in order to reverse these trends. Hopefully they will be up to the challenge.

 

No

It requires some sombre reflection on the state of our university, and the sheer chutzpah of its student politicians to realise that someone woke up one morning and said to themselves, “What Oxford really needs is MORE student politics!”

 By my count, students are offered the opportunity to vote in OUSU elections, JCR elections, Union elections, OUCA, OULC, Lawsoc, Barsoc, LGBTQ Soc, any international society and countless more. They can campaign with Womcam, for the Living Wage, with the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, and fundraise with OxHUB, RAG or any number of charities. Or, if you want to truly make a difference and contribute to the civilising democratic debate, you can simply raise a ‘Fuck You Willetts’ poster wherever he happens to be around. While the campaigns I listed are all very worthy causes (and the elections I mentioned very far from it) Oxford offers a wealth of opportunities to any politically minded student to become involved if they so desire.

To address this question, student politics needs to be divided into student elections and student activism and I will address each in turn. Student elections don’t need any “reinvigoration”; they need to die. With scant few exceptions, student politics in Oxford is undertaken purely for matters of prestige and careerism. The Union is famously “politics without policy” or “playing at politics” as an academic ethnography on Union elections put it (yes, it is very depressing to find that someone found the topic of Oxford Union elections worthy of serious academic publication).

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But in their own weird, twisted way, these elections sort of work. No one is fooled by candidates who pretend to want to “change the Union!” or “reinvigorate OUSU!” You turn out for these elections purely because your friends want you to vote. They are glorified popularity contests, inconsequential enough not to have any real impact. It could be claimed that LJ Trup’s victory in the OUSU election heralds how OUSU needs radical reinvigoration. Or it could merely indicate that last year the quality of candidates in a particular year was particularly dire, with mug painting and plagiarised websites versus “we’re not student politicians.” But the stakes are small enough that none of us will notice a difference in our lives anyway.

Student activism needs to be taken more seriously, because it is something that can often lead to genuine change. Once again, it is not in need of ‘reinvigoration’. One of the advantages of particular agendas being compartmentalised is that they can have individual, realistic goals to work towards. The Living Wage campaign is only successful because it has a specific, targeted agenda, rather than the nebulous and vague goal of ‘activism’. Activism for its own sake is not particularly admirable, or necessary.

By and large, every activist’s network is going to be comprised of a solid core of activists who would probably be attending any demonstration or campaign anyway. Student politics is ‘vigorous’ enough. We certainly do not need any more of it.