Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Last year, the News and Comment Editor of my student newspaper asked me to write about 400 words against the motion: “Protesting is integral to the student experience.” The original article, which I have slightly changed, can be found here: http://bathimpact.com/2011/12/protest-against/.
In the past couple of years, students have taken to the streets in major demonstrations in London and Manchester, confronting the government policy of raising tuition fees and spending cuts. The Occupy movement also had deep involvement from the student community, so it may seem that protesting is now becoming integral to the student experience.
Apathy amongst students is still high, even when it comes to their university unions. Sheffield Students’ Union, which has 25,805 students, was recently celebrating that they had achieved “the highest ever election turnout for a Students’ Union election in the UK”, with 8,543 students voting, a meager 33.1% turnout. According to research by Opinion Panel (PDF), only 57% of students voted in that general election; lower than the overall population of the UK. Many students’ unions run campaigns to encourage voting in elections, such as Warwick Students’ Union “Just Vote” campaign. Protesting cannot be a necessary part of the student experience because being political is not integral to being a student.
Whilst some students remain politically comatose, many students do awaken politically after they arrive on campus. Protesting is a powerful form of political expression, but it is not the only valid one. Students can participate in political parties, blog and debate, unite in advocacy groups, stand for election and write for their student newspapers. We should not coronate protesting as the pinnacle of student political activism, when there are many other methods of expression.
Claiming that protesting is integral to being a student transforms the act of protesting into an empty ritual. Students who protested in London and other cities did so because they vehemently disagree with the government’s policies, not because they saw it as a rite of passage that completes their university experience. If protesting is truly a necessary part of the student lifestyle, then the reasons for protesting becomes diminished, lost in the ceremony of holding a placard and chanting slogans.
To assert that protesting is somehow integral to the university experience, is to suggest that the reason for the protest is insignificant, that all students must be political and that protest is the only valid form of political expression. Each individual is forged by their experiences, and it is up to each of us to decide what we participate in at university. Students should not be made to feel inferior because they have not protested, that they have not lent themselves to a hegemonic stereotype, namely protesting for the perpetual revolution.