Many of the students at the NUS rally last week will have heard variations of the following: “Oh, you’re from Southampton? I didn’t think you were political there”. No offence was meant, but it seems we have something of a reputation for being disengaged, and apathetic.
Lack of political activity on campus is kind of understandable, though. Many student unions around the country are de-politicised and, for whatever reason, aren’t direct enough in expressing political positions on behalf of their membership. This seems to be the case here in Southampton.
For all its important work in caring for students in terms of their welfare, academic affairs and making sure they settle in their new home away from home, our student union is far less politically active than examples such as Sussex Students Union – involved in action against the outsourcing and privatisation of 235 jobs at their University; or ULU whose president was elected recently on an unashamedly political manifesto. Similarly we met student union officers from Aberdeen last week, at the NUS demo, who brought 2 coach loads of students down from Scotland, overnight, even though most of them receive their university education for free! Despite these exceptions, student unions lack of direct engagement in politics and reluctance to take political positions simply compounds apathy.
At the moment, it is clear that young people are being hit hard by the government. EMA has gone, fees are an eye-watering £9000, youth unemployment is at 1 million, under 25s are constantly being told that they’re ineligible for any kind of help from the benefits system and rent – for often poor quality housing – is ridiculously high.
A lot of the issues above are on the radar of societies and students here in Southampton. Socialist students have consistently argued for the reinstatement of EMA, SUSU has begun a housing campaign, Labour club and the Feminist Society often attend and host anti-cuts and anti-fees events and UCU – the lecturers’ trade union – have supported students in their campaigns to raise awareness of the damage the government is doing to Higher Education.
And these changes to Higher Education are damaging to both universities, the students who are paying £9000/year and society as a whole. Working class people are lamentably under-represented at university, and we honestly can’t see how heaping debt on young people is going to change this. Turning universities into a marketplace competing for students and privatising education funding threatens the collaborative relationship between academics and students and puts whole departments at risk. Staff are really disillusioned by these changes and alongside students they are angry at the government’s kicking of young people.
To turn the tide of apathy and to have an effective opposition to what is happening, cooperation and active participation in organising students is vital. The participatory way students organised in Quebec in their overturning of government tuition fee hikes, shows the importance of this. Importantly, in Quebec, the students received public backing in their action from groups that are relatively moderate. We will be looking for this backing from trade unions and SUSU here in Southampton.
Last Thursday lunchtime, at 12noon in the entrance of SUSU, a group of students, trade union members, lecturers, societies came together to discuss how we can organise on campus against the changes the government are making to higher education, in particular £9000 tuition fees. The point of this meeting is to be bigger than any one group, and to include a wider range of voices. These kind of meetings are happening at student unions all around the country, in the follow up to the NUS demonstration last week. Please look us up and get involved. If we are to be effective in politicising students on campus in the defence of publicly funded education for the good of society, we need your help!
This article was written by:
George Disney (Students for Education)
Rich Penny (Students for Education)
Josh Asker (Socialist Students)
Anjelica Finnegan (Students for Education)