Activism is rife in Oxford, especially student activism. Everywhere you look, you can see signs of it.
Picture this: it’s the weekend and Cornmarket Street is bustling. You pass by Wasabi and a Christian preacher attempts to convert you. You walk a little further down the street and you are handed a leaflet by a member of Extinction Rebellion. You turn onto High Street and catch a glimpse of the Rhodes Statue before making a beeline for the Rad Cam, no time to waste, you are in full essay crisis, after all.
Whether it’s the perennial protests outside the Radcliffe Camera or the more subtle sight of wilting flowers next to the library’s gated entrance, everyone in Oxford knows it; the square is a mecca for those who want to shine a light on injustice. Tied around the railing, Oxford residents have seen information on the victims of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Tehran’s crackdown on civil unrest. Just last month, around 500 people gathered for a candlelight vigil in memory of Brianna Ghey and to show their support for the Transgender community. Events organised are peaceful, supportive, and community orientated. Activism, specifically student activism, is rarely controversial in Oxford.
Despite this, you could say, student activists have got a bit of a “reputation”. When they open their mouths or challenge the status quo, it is not long before an article is published in a major national paper with the epithet “woke” featured somewhere. Indeed, it made national headlines in 2021 when Magdalen College’s MCR voted to remove a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s safe to say, conversations that arise among Oxford students aren’t necessarily confined to the City of Dreaming Spires.
But does this reputation hold up? How tied really are Oxford students to the activist culture?
STUDENT ACTIVISM SURVEY RESULTS
According to a recent poll conducted by Cherwell, half of the respondents declared that they had attended a protest before. This compares to research conducted by You Gov, which found only two in five of the general UK population agreed with the prompt. The potential is certainly there with a resounding nine in ten respondents stating they were open to attending a demonstration in the future. Many respondents explained that they had not attended a protest before due to time constraints. Others were less conciliatory, labelling the activity “self-righteous and a waste of time”. The sentiment that there was “very little faith in the aims of those protesting” was backed by the data with only seven in ten respondents thinking that political demonstrations are effective.
Although the rise of the Instagram infographic model has made activism something that no longer involves making a cardboard sign and trekking it to the town centre, Oxford students seem to have ignored this medium with only six in ten students stating that they have ever shared any activism-related posts on social media. In fact, only half of students polled thought that social media activism was effective. Oxford students appear to have greater faith in more traditional, tangible demonstrations than their digital counterparts.
When the issue turned to the use of the Radcliffe Square as a demonstration location, the vast majority of respondents (three in four) were supportive; “It is a prominent location in Oxford and symbolic of the student body”. Other students expressed concern: “It can be disruptive to students working in the libraries there and might cause annoyance even though many of them would support the causes themselves”. The minority of those who disapproved of the location tended to leave more inflammatory responses, labelling it “annoying as f***” and a “stupid place to do demonstrations”; another stated that the square “should not be devalued by such things”.
The overall view, however, was in favour of student activism in Oxford, with seven in ten respondents disagreeing with the prompt that there is “too much” activism. Students were generally sympathetic, stating that “It’s a student city and people have opinions”. Others rejected the suggestion that there could ever be “too much” activism in the first place – labelling detractors as “generally grim people”.
In any case, some respondents did criticise the activism culture, stating it was “surface level and performative”. And while some lamented the congested streets, others went in the other direction, calling Oxford’s activism scene “tiny” and using the response section as a call to arms: “Given the current government there should be protests every day, alongside rent strikes and occupations.”
Half of those polled stated that they are not a member of any student activist organisation, one quarter said they are involved in political activism and the remainder of respondents focus on a range of social rights issues. The Oxford University Labour Club was the most named activist organisation. Nonetheless, activist culture should not be conflated with left-wing ideology, with anti-Abortion activism also featuring among the responses.
Despite the fairly high levels of activity amongst the student body, the vast majority of respondents (75%) do not consider themselves to be an “activist”. Does this dispel the myth of Oxford as a University of student activists or do actions speak louder than labels?
DEEP DIVE INTO THE PSYCHE OF A STUDENT ACTIVIST WITH BEAU BOKA-BATESA
Beyond the inflated rhetoric that surrounds student activism in Oxford, I wanted to speak to the individuals who juggle these two competing vocations. What is it like, on a human level, to try and find balance in such a high-pressure environment and what is it like to manage other people’s expectations, let alone their own?
I spoke to Beau Boka-Batesa (they/them), a second-year climate justice campaigner at Lincoln who, along with their two friends, co-founded Choked Up at the age of 17. This campaign raises awareness of the impact of air pollution and how it disproportionately affects people of colour and those of working-class backgrounds in London.
The interview began by asking Beau what activism means to them; we all have a different conception of what it means, especially in the digital age. “For me, activism is holistic,” they said, “there’s no set way to be a right activist […] For me, it’s about what you do with your anger”. This anger was something that came up in the survey; while respondents tended to be understanding of the other perspective, epithets such as “fascist” were used to describe those who threaten the rights of others. While some saw activism as essential to their very existence, others felt it was just “shouting into the wind”.
Dispelling the perceived notion of Oxford as an activist hub, Beau admitted that they felt “slightly underwhelmed” by the lack of political activity taking place: “I thought that people would be more angry about things […] but there hasn’t been as much as momentum”. The potential is there, they added: “I feel a lot of students here, they definitely have the intention [to demonstrate]. But I guess the means of being able to express that is a bit of a barrier”. While this rhetoric is certainly reflected in the data Cherwell collected, I was surprised that even those who operate within the activism sphere still encountered a lack of enthusiasm and engagement.
Discussing the pressures that come with the label of student activist, Beau conceded: “I think we’re expected to do all these great things […] all the time, and that can be really time-consuming and pressuring. I’ve always struggled to find the balance between doing my degree and doing activism”. While they recognized that academics were the priority at university, Beau added, “It’s really difficult when you love both things equally because you don’t want one thing to be at the cost of another”.
While tutors don’t actively discourage their activist commitments, Beau said, “It’s not necessarily something that they encouraged”. Beau was candid in admitting that sometimes they were not able to hand in their best work due to time constraints that came from their activist commitments and that tutors would comment that they were not reaching their potential. What came across in our interview was that all this activism comes at a cost, both in terms of academics and general stress levels. But Beau also pointed out that any assertion that academics should be a zero-sum game is wholly unrealistic and at odds with the reality of being a student: “I can’t just tap out and work on a degree for eight weeks straight” and if it’s not campaigning, people are always going to have personal issues. At the end of the day, students are not machines.
Beau reflected on how their circumstances have changed since starting their degree. Choked Up was born out of a charity that helps young people found campaigns: “We got around six months of mentoring and schooling […] how to run a campaign”. But since then, “we’ve basically been managing it all.” There seems to have been a real shift from running the campaign as a teenager to now as a university student, not only logistically, but also in terms of relationships with other organisers. It’s clear that the organisation has had to grow and adapt, and so has Beau.
Next, I asked Beau what impact the label “Oxford student” has had on their activism. “In terms of opportunities, I guess being a student at Oxford […] really does sell the money.” Likewise, more generally “journalists are […] very fixated on young people”; and put them on this pedestal. The promise of the next generation comes with the pressure to say yes to every opportunity. Here, Beau hinted at a catch-22 situation: while the Oxford label opens up many opportunities, these very opportunities then have to compete with the reality of a high-pressure academic environment that verges on demonising extracurriculars that take up too much time for comfort.
In a critique of the way the University operates, Beau said: “We all signed up for it […] But it’s just this constant, pressure cooker environment […] I feel like I’m constantly just having to fulfil expectations.” Beau admitted that they have sometimes felt disillusioned with their degree due to the constant need to churn out essays. It’s a common sentiment among Oxford students: the short terms, the vac work, burn-out. Adding on top of all this academic work the responsibilities of being an activist, it’s enough to wear anyone down. When the idea of a reading week came up, Beau straight away threw their support behind it; “Oh, absolutely […] A lot of people say rest is radical. If anything, it’s the bare minimum.”
Despite the pressures that come with being a student activist, Beau remained optimistic: “There’s always a place for people in the movement”; in a very hyper-digital age, we have so many means of campaigning. “I really do believe in young people”. Beau did acknowledge, however, that “it’s understandable that a lot of young people feel disillusioned […] because they are constantly looked down on.”
From our conversation, it became clear that one of the major facets of student activism is the youth element – that these activists are simultaneously venerated as the future generation, but also treated with contempt by some older people for their “inexperience”. Nonetheless, Beau concluded that “the moment the door is shut down on you, you have just got to find a way to open it again.” I would say that those are words which are enough to inspire and console another generation of student activists, but is that just me falling into the trap of pedestal-placing?
STUDENT ACTIVISM, A LACK OF BALANCE?
During my conversation with Beau, one word came up time and again: balance. “Be prepared to compromise and say no to more things”, Beau summarised, “Your degree is finite, but your activism will live on”.
This sentiment was echoed by Bella Done (she/they), Co-Chair of LGBTQ+ Oxford SU, a student-led campaign working to improve the lines of LGBTQ+ people at the University of Oxford. Bella began by explaining that it was the strong activist presence in Oxford that encouraged them to get involved with student activism; their journey began “by running for LGBTQ+ Rep within the JCR at Hertford, and gradually starting to attend lots of protests that were advertised around”.
Yet again, Bella identified the attempt to balance her activism with her studies as the most difficult part of being a student activist. Nonetheless, this challenge does not deter her: “It can be difficult to balance [running a campaign] with studies, especially as a lot of it involves chasing people and more admin than I’d like, but I’m so grateful for the experience. The community of student activists is wonderful, and really inspiring to work with”. Although Bella admitted that the fatigue that comes with student activism is “very challenging, especially when you’re fighting for a minority group on top of being a part of it”, she qsummarised that “seeing real, tangible change is the best feeling”.
Jack Hurrell (he/him), a first-year at St Peter’s gave Cherwell a valuable insight into the gruelling reality of a Labour Club campaigner.“A day out truly is a day out, meeting in some cases at 7 a.m. and not returning until 6 p.m.” he explained. This has a “massive impact” on his work schedule and “many essays due in on Monday mornings have suffered as a result”. Jack drew attention to the fact that this sort of routine is simply not possible for students with finals ahead of them, and thus the “most active year group campaigning are the freshers”.
Jack recounts a particularly hostile encounter with a heckler in Hilary that informed the group that they were “terrorists converting the country to a new world order”. While he emphasised that he routinely talks to “lovely people”, encounters like this “did remind us of some of the dangers associated with campaigning”. In all, despite the difficulties associated with student activism, Jack remains resolute – like so many other student activists I have spoken to. Jack said campaigning was a great experience and “couldn’t recommend it strongly enough”.
Student activists are keen to consider the real-world ramifications of injustice; in spite of the “Oxford bubble”, they, more than most, look beyond the weekly essay crisis. While the university does not explicitly support or dissuade their activities, the pressure is pervasive. And perhaps they are put on a pedestal by some for seeming to do it all, but they, like everyone else, simply can’t. The message we are left with is one firmly geared towards the future – vocally optimistic with a tinge of pragmatism.