Over the last few months we’ve seen a significant rise in student activism at British universities. Prompted by the anti-privatisation ‘Occupy Sussex’ protest, students around the country have sought to influence the managers of their institutions in increasingly visible ways.
Last week saw students at my own university occupy one of Warwick’s prominent administrative buildings, Senate House. The protesters complained of a ‘marketisation’ of the university – a process epitomised by the Vice Chancellor’s recent pay rise of £42,000 at a time when less well paid staff fear for their jobs.
I discussed the protest with a number of students and it is fair to say that whilst the activists garnered considerable support from their peers, they were also met with cynicism. It was hard to find students who believed that the university should be run more like a business but a far more common criticism of the protest was that it simply wouldn’t change anything.
My immediate response to this criticism was perhaps the obvious one. If it weren’t for their visible occupation of the university, we wouldn’t have have been talking about the issues the protesters wanted to see addressed. A discussion or debate in some SU meeting room or lecture hall would not have so effectively encouraged students and staff to engage with the ongoing transformation of Warwick University and higher education general. In that sense, the occupation very efficiently bought about change – it got people talking.
But the occupation of Senate House has now come to an end. The university refused to constructively engage with the protesters and claimed that their concerns would only be addressed through the officially sanctioned channel of democracy, the Students Union. Critics will now accuse activists of achieving nothing and only wasting time. Their efforts, it will be argued would have been more fruitful had they worked more closely with the university and union.
Apart from the fact that many of the protesters are active in student politics, this response overlooks something rather more important. Radical change rarely comes from the beneficence of the powers-that-be, it comes from visible grassroots activism. This is why student protest is so important. Many feel disenfranchised by the existing channels of engagement and protest provides them with a more direct way to air widely-held grievances.
Were it not for the activists of the past that pushed against rules and regulations to get their voices heard, there would be no union for the university to refer protesters to. Increased representation has historically been the result of precisely this kind of action.
Although the university refused to engage with the protesters on this occasion, this does not mean that in future protests they will not have to. Activism has seldom been met with open arms. Protests like the one at Warwick attempt to open a new dialogue with management on students’ terms. At a time when so many feel frustrated and ignored, that should only be encouraged. If cynics ever want to see a day when something can change, they must stop writing student protest off.