Brief though my spell as an undergraduate has been, if I have but one insight it is this: student politics is not fit for purpose. A strange thing to say, though less strange than when a 20 year old Politics and Public Policy student from the University of Glasgow unseats an incumbent Shadow Foreign Secretary. Yet, that is politics, this is student politics.
Left wanting, the voices of our university communities are carefully packaged within a select few individuals, the avatars of student consensus. I bet you’ve heard of them, the BNOCs, propped up by a bulwark of Facebook ‘likes’ or shot down by a Daily Mail article. Rhetoric-ridden calls for ‘revolution’ and social upheaval on one hand, outmoded conservatism and priggishness on the other – it’s all the same. By now, it must play like a broken record. Admittedly, much of this behavior is reducible to grandstanding, or at least, in my naïvety, I should hope so. Anyhow, these showy expositions betray a certain prejudice – an unwillingness to listen and learn, as well as speak.
However, this is not the plight of the few, but the many. Caught in the tumult, we forget where we are. University is a forum for us to challenge ourselves, not just others. Configured as it is, newly matriculated students funnel off into their comfort zones and confirmation bias ensues. Unchecked, unchallenged and unrevised, our shallow preconceptions become our firmly entrenched beliefs. That is my first point. Don’t buy it? Well, in a General Election survey conducted by the Oxford Student, the voting intentions of 578 students were sampled. 36 per cent of classicists sided with the Tories (compared with 24 per cent of students in general) while 78 per cent of English students expressed a preference for left-leaning parties (53 per cent Labour, 25 per cent Green). It comes as no coincidence, or indeed shock, that these two sets of students veer off on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Of course, such discrepancies are fine so long as they are informed decisions, which are arrived upon after lengthy consideration. It is a critique of narrow-mindedness, not of parties.
With Cherwell showing fairly similar results – overall figures in the range of 31.6 per cent Labour, 24.2 per cent Conservative – it also seems peculiar to ponder the efficacy of student politics in light of the election. Had Labour won a majority, I suspect the debate would follow along very different lines. For example, people might argue student politics helped to mobilise electoral victory. In truth, a sizeable OUCA contingent of 12 activists operating from 4:50am on 7th May probably went a long way to securing a 4.5 per cent swing in favour of the Tories. The success of student politics ought not to be closely wedded to the success of Labour, if that is what is implied. Rightly or wrongly, student opinion is not superimposable on one strand of thought, whether it’s on the left or the right.
That same Cherwell survey also listed students’ priorities when taking to the polls. Predictably, Labour voters were primarily concerned with social welfare and the NHS while Conservative voters emphasised tax, jobs and government borrowing. Recognition of why those who vote for certain parties do so, rather than mutual demonisation, would maybe, just maybe, bring about a workable solution. There is a middle ground to be reached, and you will have to forgive me if I say it’s more blurred than unequivocally to the left or to the right. On both sides, the tone of the message and how it is pitched dissuades and intimidates those who perhaps need to hear it most.
In terms of structure, student politics is clustered around a handful of institutions. Namely, the Oxford Union, OUSU and the NUS. While the former is optional, the latter two are not. OUSU and the NUS claim an implicit mandate to represent us, yet a centrist, apolitical student union appears to be off the cards entirely. Undoubtedly, more than most, OUSU and the NUS have contributed to a healthier campus atmosphere, championing issues ranging from access to general welfare.
These are admirable endeavours. However, their wider ideological bent is clear. At times, the NUS more closely resembles the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or the UN than what it is: a student union. Regardless of politics, this is neither the time nor the place. Case in point: take the NUS’s ‘Liar Liar’ campaign – £40,000 of anti-Liberal Democrat propaganda issued on our behalf. Such misuse and squandering of NUS funds is unjustifiable. Instead of representing students, a lot of student politics, albeit not all of it, is geared towards ‘going to the people’ with preconcieved beliefs about the best course of action, regardless of the situation. Rather than seeking to represent students, the left and the right diagnose the other with a kind of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and then venture to cure them.
In this respect, student politics is a wretched business. Yes, from time to time something valuable may be achieved but unfortunately, unproductive bickering and egoism tends to win the day. Organising with a single voice can be advantageous, but advantageous to what end? If changes ought to be made, let them be made. But we must tread cautiously with the narratives and views we promote, especially en masse. For me, the object of student politics should be more about exploring your beliefs and garnering experience than simply promoting your own rigid views. Student politics at the moment simply does not do this.
When expressing my disdain at the record of the Conservative party, I received a curious response. A friend, a Tory, asked me if I had campaigned at all for a political party. My answer was no, and with good reason. This election, like many others, was a lose-lose situation for those on the left, though some losses are obviously worse than others. I bring up this example because I think it teases out an angle of this debate often neglected. The re-election of David Cameron, this time with a majority, is a political reality we have to face up to. But we must also shake off this notion that politics is that box we mark once every five years, and face up to the fact that our day to day lives are political grounds in which multiple power dynamics are constantly at play. Rather than having to accept what gets thrown at us in between each election, we can push back and let our discontent be known.
Students play a key role in these broader political struggles. We are in the position of having more time and resources available to us than those who are primarily targeted by austerity. In this sense, those of us who are committed to a better world have a duty to fight, not because it feels good but because it works. We can do more than conjuring images of student sit-ins demanding desegregation, of huge Vietnam demos as the spirit of ‘68 swept through the left. We can look to Canada where the 2012 Quebec student general strike forced the government to reverse a 75 per cent hike in tuition fees. We can look to Chile where university students organised with high school students to force the need to de-marketise education onto the agenda and got rid of a terrible education minister in the process. We can look to Cambridge, where students from FLY, a student forum describing itself as ‘Cambridge University’s network and forum for women of colour’, alleged that a student had been sexually assaulted by one of the staff of the Gardenoa Cafe and organised a boycott.
Most importantly, we can look at how the history of activism at our own university has shaped the institutions here today. We got our student union after a seven day sit-in at exam schools of 350 students, with the threat of more. The University was afraid of a central students’ union for two reasons. Firstly, it would hold the University to account – outrage had been sparked when, in 1961, the Proctors had attempted to ban ISIS from publishing reviews of lectures. Secondly, the Proctors were worried that it would be used to promote student activism, like offering our rooms to picketing miners and supporting staff strikes. The University was well aware of the power students had when they looked beyond the fortress and worked within the community. Solidarity is a powerful thing.
Here’s the thing, student politics isn’t just the glitzy demos and the occupations. I recall a conversation with Hilary Wainwright about her time here in the 60s. She said the first political activity she remembers was drawing up a questionnaire and going out to Blackbird Leys to find out what the community wanted. While we must show our discontent with whatever this government tries to grind us down with, student politics has other facets. We cannot forget the need to build solid links with the community – there is no justification for waiting on revolution when Tory cuts are biting now.
So please, please, please get involved – look out for demonstrations and occupations to join. Get involved in direct action. Volunteer at local soup kitchens and shelters. Join the fight against UKIP’s pervasive racist rhetoric. Stand in solidarity with our scouts who have to work with terrible conditions, earning in a year what Andrew Hamilton, our Vice Chancellor, makes in 12 days. Join with our academic staff who had to see their wages cut in real terms year on year. All of this stuff is political, all of this stuff allows us to stop complaining from our ivory tower and actually do something to make the world a better place.