Mention Tiananmen Square and the first thing that comes to mind is the image of a lone man, standing strong against the oncoming tanks. The anti-Vietnam protests which swept across America in the 1970s will be forever remembered by the Kent State University shootings, the victims of which were students protesting on campus. Even in England, think of the opening scene from the film Human Traffic and you’re met with the footage of students surging against the gates of Downing Street in the early 90s, battling with the very boundaries of the state. Throughout history the student body has been on the front line of political movements, the vanguard of revolutionary action, providing a wave of energy and momentum on which many a protest has ridden. This seems only natural considering the freedom of expression and of intellectual thought the scholastic environment of university supposedly cultivates.
But aside from the rubbish-strewn streets emitting an odour that could not be covered by the wafts from a nearby patisserie (the dustmen were also on strike), what struck me most was the mass mobilisation of the youth. It was the students who were at the forefront of the demonstrations, marching on behalf of their elders. Likewise it was the embittered faces of the undergrads, frustrated by a government which would not listen to its younger citizens, which coloured every front page in France. I was inspired, swept along by their infectious political awareness. If this were England, we would have barely batted an eyelid at the increase. Retirement? That’s inspires about as much militancy as our ever-increasing overdrafts.
But flash forwards a couple of weeks and this is England. Following the recent proposal of raising the cap on tuition fees and cutting university funding, it seems that finally we have taken a leaf out of our European neighbours’ book, with over 50,000 students attending a staged demonstration in London. Yet is the apathy that has plagued our generation of students really lifting? And if so, what will be the consequences of this new found political activism?
The ‘Millbank’ protest, as it will probably come to be known, was the first student-centric demonstration in England organised en masse since the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994. Back then students were fighting for their right to party – the legislation was the first to ban parties in open air where there were more than a hundred people, rendering raves illegal. But now the stakes are even higher, will British students awake once more from their rave-induced slumber and fight for their right to study? Looking at the figures from Nottingham’s attendance at the demo alone, it would appear the answer is perhaps ‘No’. Out of a potential 33,000 students at the university who could have attended, the Facebook event showed only 452 ‘attending’ and, according to the Student’s Union, only 220 actually signed up and paid their £10 to travel down to London on the day. Despite this, SU President Will Vickers states he was pleased with the turn out “given the timescale”. But the NUS had been planning this national demonstration since August – surely the average student’s schedule isn’t that booked up?
Blaming poor attendance entirely on logistics doesn’t quite wash. Yes, the demonstration was a 2 hour coach journey away; yes it required a 7am start (notoriously difficult for the average student) but in the face of these devastating cuts to our education, these small inconveniences pale into insignificance. Instead, perhaps it is the very mentality of our student culture that needs to be readdressed. These crippling changes will not come into affect until 2012, by which point the majority of current students will be either long gone, plunged into the chaotic world of graduate (un)employment, or on the home straight in Hallward. The temptation, therefore, is or students to sit back and do nothing, as the proposed plans will not encroach upon their respective backyards. The ‘it doesn’t affect me’ mentality that so often turns people off protests – like deleting a round-robin charity email or skimming past the article on orphans in Grazia – only serves to continue the cycle of discontent.
Of course, there is the argument – favoured in particular by the media – that even when we drag ourselves out of apathy, it is a futile effort. Due to the very nature of mobilised masses, protests often pass under the radar if carried out without a dramatic event of some description, such as the actions of a small minority of Demo 2010 protesters who smashed the windows of the Conservative HQ. However, looking back to the anti-Israeli occupation sit-in that took place on our very own campus in 2009, it was the very definition of a peaceful protest. The students occupied the Law and Social Sciences building for several days, playing music and receiving pea soup passed through the windows unbeknownst to the rather bemused security guards. Eventually it came to an end with students being forcibly removed from the premises, but at no point did it descend into chaos. Ok, so this student protest obviously did not end the Gaza conflict, nor did they receive the free scholarships for Palestinian students that they had requested, but the sit-in did gain huge attention from the media and served to heighten the awareness of the issue both on campus and off. It even gained recognition on a national scale from prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky. Surely if we can rally round on behalf of the people in the Middle East, we can muster the energy to raise our placards against issues on our home turf?
Even after having cast our votes and exercising our political rights, many feel let down by the most recent General Election. Given the complete renege on certain party policies (yes, I’m looking you Clegg) this is hardly surprising. Even when we had the chance to voice our opinions via the vote, it seems that no one was really listening. Perhaps it is a disease of disillusionment rather than apathy that so badly afflicts us; either way, we now have the chance to remedy this. The student body is awakening in England, slowly realising that it’s slept through a lot more than a lecture. By burying our heads in the sand now, at so crucial a moment as during this weak coalition government, we’re doing a disservice to not only the future generation of students, but to ourselves. If French students can get riled up about retirement, then surely we can refuse the reforms that are going to affect not just our children, but our younger brothers and sisters. If not we risk merely adding another weight to the ever-increasing ‘saddle of debt’. It’s somewhat like social Buckaroo. And we all know how that game ends.