By Bradley Allsop

The only way to make the word ‘politics’, that great indicator of all manner of corruption and trickery, more contemptible is to plonk the word ‘student’ in front of it. It almost feels like you‘re not pronouncing ‘student politics’ right if you do it without a sneer, or at least a shudder. Student politics has an image problem.

This has always baffled me. Sure, NUS conferences are a bit of a joke, but even there important things get talked about and some important policy occasionally gets passed. Sure, lots of students’ unions are timid and badly run, but many of them still manage to do incredible work for their students and their local communities. Many student activists quietly chip away at injustice, competently and honourably. So, what’s behind the disdain?

Likely, this scorn for student politics is rooted in a general snootiness about student life, heaped on top of the disillusionment and distrust many already feel with politics of any flavour. I feel this particularly keenly, having stayed on at university for a masters and now a PhD. Friends that have gone out into the ‘real’ world (apparently, I attend Hogwarts), some of whom were even stalwart student activists in their day, get sniffy about campus activism now. There’s a sense that the stakes aren’t very high, that the issues don’t matter all that much, and that students are all naïve and incompetent.

The issues that student activists are fighting for have real stakes, and impact many lives

Higher education is incredibly important. Not as important as it sometimes likes to think it is – there’s still far too much puff and privilege embedded in our ‘great education institutions’. Our country was built on the backs of working class people, with profound compassion, intellect and craft. But higher education is, nonetheless, vital. Life-saving medical advances, deep and penetrating critiques of the political and economic status quo, newly trained social workers, nurses and teachers, universe-expanding scientific discoveries – all of these come out of our campuses. At its best, HE plays a crucial role in driving forward collective knowledge, forming young minds and expanding society’s possibilities. What happens to higher education matters, deeply.

And it’s in trouble. Students and young people are facing a mental health crisis of epic proportions. Universities are increasingly coming to rely upon precarious, poorly paid and exploitative labour. Student debt is spiralling, staff in many departments are overworked and marketisation is tearing through professional standards and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. The issues that student activists are fighting for have real stakes, and impact many lives – they deserve our respect, support and solidarity.

Of course, student politics can also be a place of education about and engagement in a wider set of political issues, beyond campus life, from trade unionism, to the plight of Palestine, to climate change. During my time as a student, I’ve been part of student groups that have: campaigned against university investment in fossil fuels; hosted talks on climate change, homelessness and political engagement; organised interfaith dinners; campaigned for political parties; cleaned up local nature spots and registered young people to vote. Not only does involvement in student politics engage and equip many young people to go out and tackle broader political issues, but it actually plays a role in directly addressing those problems too. Throughout history, student activism has often been central to social changes in broader society, from the protests that swept the world in 1968, to anti-apartheid organising in the ‘80s, to the most vibrant parts of the movements against climate change today.


Student protests against the Vietnam war, 1965. Credit: UW Digital Collections

Many of the activists I’ve had the honour of campaigning with have been incredibly smart, diligent and compassionate, working their asses off for a better world, while also finding time for their studies and, in many cases, part-time jobs. We do students a disservice to reproduce the lazy stereotypes attached to student life, or to base our judgments of the worth of student politics on its worst examples. It’s easy to pick holes in a silly motion that appeared at NUS conference, or to base our opinion of all students on the one lazy one we know, but this doesn’t do justice to the incredible work of student activists.

I bother with Students’ Unions and NUS and student activist groups because. despite all the messiness and frustrations of student politics, underneath it all, it really matters for thousands of students and for the rest of society. So, if you’re a bit sniffy towards student activism, maybe consider educating yourself a bit more about the movement, offering support and encouragement where you can instead. And if you’re a student activist, thank you. It’s often a thankless and gruelling task, but you’re fantastic and we all owe you a debt – keep going. Together, we can change things.

Featured image credit: Bob Bob via Flickr

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