Battle in Print: What's up with student politics?

Rob Walsh, 29 September 2006

Young people [now] have a negative vision of the future. May ’68 was an offensive movement with a positive vision, but today’s protests are against things. They are defensively based on a fear of insecurity and change.
- Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Paris ’68 student uprising

Whilst Cohn-Bendit and his generation should probably look a little closer to home if they’re seeking an explanation of young people’s alienation from politics, he does have a point. It is pretty obvious to most that the stereotype of the student radical ready to go on a demonstration at any provocation is no longer based on reality.

Earlier this year, the lecturers’ union the Association of University Teachers (AUT) went on strike in British universities. Instead of traditional solidarity with their tutors against the university authorities, many students demanded that lecturers ‘mark our work!’ This rather narcissistic and ill-focused campaign was perhaps the nadir of the retreat of students from the now mythical 60s heyday of radicalism.

In the past, many student campaigns were organised around defending students’ rights – for instance, campaigns around allowing the opposite sex access to halls of residence in the name increased sexual freedom, to limit the interference of the authorities. However, over the past decade or so, we have seen the reverse – an increasing tendency for student unions (SUs) to regulate the activities of their members.

Smoking bans, now being taken up by the government with enthusiasm, were pioneered in campus bars. SUs were also trailblazers for new restrictions on freedom of speech, through speech codes and the banning of groups such as the British National Party and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Students’ sex lives are up for grabs too, with codes of conduct regulating their behaviour with lecturers and other students. This increasingly authoritarian tendency of SUs has been met by total apathy.

Student campaigns that in the past were a real political force to be reckoned with are now a shell of their former selves. There has been a shift in the types of societies at university: as political groups have haemorrhaged members, the number of ethnic or nationality-based societies has blossomed. Whilst this is related to increasing numbers of international students, it also reflects the more inward-looking and identity-based nature of student organisations.

Those that can still mobilise people on a more outward-looking platform have a very limited view of what is possible politically, and little ability to act effectively. We saw this in the failures of the anti-fees and anti-war movements. In fact, many of the largest groups and campaigns (for instance many of the environmental groups, and the Islamic societies) are – in traditional terms – far from politically progressive.

Whilst it may be churlish to write off the entire political landscape of British universities, or foolish to reminisce about how great the 60s were, there is little use in looking at the current situation with rose-tinted glasses. We should be aware that student politics simply doesn’t really exist anymore.

On one level this simply reflects a winding down of contestation within society more broadly. It is perverse to expect students to coherently and radically criticise the status quo on their own when no one else seems capable of it. Equally, why should students resist the coercive initiatives of SUs when the state is carrying out similar measures nationally with hardly a peep of dissent? And what kind of form could that resistance take?

However, to really account for these changes, a look at what has specifically changed in the university itself is helpful. Essentially, there is an increasing difficulty in making sense of the entire student experience (and adulthood itself), which has more to do with the government, university authorities, and society more generally than with the (many) faults of the moribund student left.

The demise of adulthood

Sociologist Frank Furedi has written about ‘Peterpandemonium’, where young people increasingly seek refuge in a number of childish pursuits to avoid the increasingly scary world of adult responsibility (Furedi 29.7.2003). With increasing numbers of gap years, four-year courses, years abroad and master’s degrees, many young people will not enter the ‘real world’ until their mid-twenties. Contrast this with Cohn-Bendit, 23-years-old at the time of les événements in Paris, Trotsky, aged 26 when he led the Petrograd Soviet in 1905, or William Pitt the Younger, prime minister of the emerging British Empire in his early 20s.

However, we must remember that young people are not somehow genetically different today. We live in a time of lowered expectations and hostility to the old-fashioned values of responsibility and agency, where both individual and collective attempts to change things are seen as frightening. This makes it easy for young people to avoid pushing the boundaries, whether in politics, academic life or personal life.

Narratives of studenthood

There has also been a shift in the way that being a university student, as opposed to a young person in general, is interpreted. Like every other part of the elite in Western society, universities have been facing something of a crisis of confidence. Without universities having a clear sense of purpose, it is harder for students to make sense of their experience. At the start of the twentieth century, the university was very much a training school for the children of the elite, producing men capable of ruling the British Empire. This unapologetic vision of university for the ruling classes bit the dust with the Empire itself, and the arrival of increasing numbers of working class students in the late 50s.

Throughout the late 60s and 70s, the university was the place we all fondly remember – strikes, sit-ins, revolutionaries. But beneath this there was a dynamic of many young working class kids attempting to prove themselves equal to or better than their more privileged contemporaries. Helped by the grammar schools, the progressive social environment of the post-war boom and the meritocratic instincts of Harold Wilson’s government, a large number of young people managed to escape their circumstances (including several leading members of the government).

The university no longer has the same impact on social inequality as it did in the past. There are now less working class students at Oxbridge and many of the red brick universities than there were in the 1970s. A recent study in the Guardian examined the increasing segregation between the Russell Group of universities, where white middle class students go, and the newer urban universities where ethnic minority and working class students are studying (Curtis 3.1.2006). The response to this has been a number of patronising initiatives to seek to ‘broaden participation’. This has resulted in the dumbing down of entrance requirements, without tackling the real source of the problem, namely a distribution of educational quality along class lines, at both primary and secondary level.

More generally, the central purpose of the university – to serve as a hothouse for the intellectual and scientific crème de la crème, to research, to learn, and to think – is in retreat. The marketisation of universities has been noted by several commentators (BBC News 24.3.2004). The focus is now more on skills rather than knowledge, as corporate interests buy into the higher education sector. However, this isn’t a simple case of evil capitalists taking over education. It becomes easy for corporations – in a climate when education for its own sake has few supporters within the government and sections of the elite more broadly – to push their own agendas and interests onto academic institutions. One result of this has been that academic freedom has suffered.

The marketisation of education inevitably has an effect on the mindset of students. When you are a (paying) customer of a university’s product, if you fail your exams, they have failed as a service provider, rather than you having failed as a student.  When a degree is seen as the next step on the career ladder, and comes as the natural progression after school, students can’t be blamed for seeing it as a chore. This boredom is perversely reinforced by university authorities attempting to make their courses more ‘relevant’ – with easy to understand handouts and PowerPoint presentations, and less content. As numbers of students increase, lecturers have less access to individual students and their informal pastoral role is diluted. This space is increasingly being filled by student peer councillors. Such a system hardly places any value on degrees for their own sake. Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that students are disengaged from their own education.

The one eternal justification for being a student seems to be the only one left – to drink, take drugs and have sex, thus filling the void left by the thirst for knowledge and political engagement.

The search for an alternative

Students are not inherently radical. For most of its history the university was a reactionary place, where limits were placed upon what was acceptable. The French Enlightenment was born in the salons of Paris, and the socialist movement in trade union meeting halls; neither was born on a university campus. It is entirely possible that the student radicalism of the second half of the twentieth century was the exception rather than the rule.

That said, young people are often less willing to see the status quo as an unmoveable object. Whilst student activists will not be able to magic-up a forward-looking political programme on their own, we need to start a debate. By demanding the high quality and intellectual rigour that was demanded of our parents’ generation, and the liberty to live as we see fit, we can hopefully move beyond talk of the past golden age of universities, and create one of our own.


BBC News (24.3.2004). Higher education “market” warning. BBC News website.

Curtis, P. (3.1.2006). Segregation, 2006 style. The Guardian.

Furedi, F. (29.7.2003). The children who won’t grow up. Spiked.

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