We live in turbulent times. The political establishment has been rocked again and again this last year. The government is embattled in a way it hasn’t been for 7 years and that rarest of things in British politics, change, is peeking its head above the parapet. What’s more, for the first time in my lifetime, it seems my generation is willing to be an active participant in all this. June’s election saw the highest rise in youth turnout in British political history – it reached its highest absolute level since 1992. It falls to those of us already engaged to fan this flame and help it spread beyond the ballot box, building the political courage and competencies of our fellows. Nowhere offers a better opportunity for us to do this than on university campuses.
I aim here to provide a brief roadmap of key changes we need to be organising for at HE institutions, changes sorely needed to make student life better, to improve the impact academia has on the world, and most importantly of all to further challenge the embattled neoliberal project.
First and foremost we urgently need to reverse the trend of Students’ Unions becoming professionalised and depoliticised. Some unions are at risk of becoming little more than marketing arms for universities, helping boost ‘student experience’ scores but often failing to sufficiently challenge university decisions or engage students in collective action.
every conversation, every signature, every debate begins to foster a culture of solidarity and engagement
This year I and a number of other students at my university founded the Campaign for Lincoln Democracy. Our aim is to transform our SU into a genuinely democratic body that is more willing to stand up for students. We’ve organised behind progressive candidates, aided in drafting motions, set up ‘democracy pledges’ for people to sign up to, and done the best we can to hold our officers to account in a union that fails to offer true accountability. It’s been an uphill struggle, and we’re nowhere near done. But it’s been worth every second – every conversation, every signature, every debate begins to foster a culture of solidarity and engagement on campus, and of crafting a union that works for students. Having your union’s resources, contacts, skills and leverage on side is invaluable in creating change on campuses.
Strong grassroots campaigning
Student politics has a proud history the world over of leading and participating in society-wide campaigns on issues from climate change to apartheid to austerity. We can run formal engagement campaigns through our unions, we can get creative in political societies on campus, or we can simply come together with others who feel the same way and run with an idea – the Campaign for Lincoln Democracy started with a chat in the pub.
A good starting point is to write an open letter with clear demands for change, and collect signatures both online and with in-person conversations. This spreads awareness amongst students and those that hold power on campus. Escalate slowly and strategically – get a motion passed at a democratic union meeting, set up an email lobbying exercise aimed at key decision makers, organise a protest or a short sit-in. If the change you’re fighting for still hasn’t come, if appropriate consider more serious direct action like an occupation. Always spread awareness online and get student and local media involved, and have prepared statements and escalation plans in place.
Staff and Students Unite
As well as being a worthwhile cause in itself, fighting for fair pay and working conditions is a great way to start fostering closer relationships between students and university staff. These issues affect all students in terms of the quality of teaching they get, and of course many teaching staff are themselves PG students. Campaigns such as Warwick Anti-Casualisation, or the formal alliance between Queen’s Belfast Students’ Union and local trade unions, secured by student referendum, are great examples to emulate. A united front of students and workers can be a formidable force for change.
Another aim of this collaboration should be advancing student and staff representation at all levels of university decision-making. The Social Science Centre in Lincoln is a co-operative university, run by a volunteer group comprising academics, students and citizens, all equal in decision making and the learning process. It offers an insight into what a democratic higher education might look like: a system where the primary decision makers are the students being taught and the staff doing the groundwork, not disconnected, business-orientated senior managers. And it’s not a distant dream – some universities (including Lincoln) have started to allow students onto interview panels for new staff and given them more hands-on roles in reviewing modules. There’s a long way to go, but a different sort of decision-making on campus is beginning to feel possible.
Radical Student Media
Listicles and sports news are fine, but our student media needs to do more. We can commission reporting on campus, local and national issues. We can expose dodgy university practices and start debates on how to correct them. Some universities already have excellent student media, others less so – those who have the skills and experience should be looking to reach out and help ambitious new media projects.
All of the above is of limited use unless we can make academia more accessible and relevant to non-academics. We need to not just be communicating ideas better, but bringing people outside of formal higher education into our work. This will require us to challenge the cultures and teaching of our subjects. The Post-Crash Economics Society in Manchester has challenged the lack of diversity and real-world application in university economics education. They’ve hosted their own alternative teaching sessions, launched a petition and engaged with senior management about curriculum reform, and they’ve joined in international organising and agitation with similar groups around the world under the umbrella of Rethinking Economics.
We also have to wrestle with what the role of ‘experts’ is in today’s world. The distrust of expertise has some sensible grounding – under neoliberalism, experts are too often in the driving seat and decision making is distanced from citizens. Academia’s role should be to advise, to stimulate and to question, but not to decide for people. Checking the hubris of the ‘experts’ in our fields, ensuring diversity and pluralism in our departments, communicating our theories and research more effectively, and using our knowledge to aid activists and communities, are all crucial. When the academic world is more outward-looking, and embedded in the social change happening around it, we find new ways forward.
Tinkering on the edges is out – the grand, the bold and the transformative are in
The world, is on the verge of change, but what that will look like is still uncertain. Predictions are being proven increasingly futile in politics, but visions have never had it better. Tinkering on the edges is out – the grand, the bold and the transformative are in. To channel this energy, this flux, this historical moment into something positive will require radical ideas, and well-equipped activists to make them a reality. Relevant, open-minded, well-communicated academic work is a good in its own right, but it’s also the doorway to transforming our world. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and organise.
Featured image credit: Kevin Gessner
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