For me, the purpose of activism is to bring about social change. Here in the UK, there is an ongoing debate in the student movement about whether that should be achieved by way of a revolution, or by public policy change. As a democrat, it is important to contextualise my own views. I believe that here in the UK our activism, our pressure groups, and our social movements should be about change through shaping policy solutions. But that is not my worldview.
I have been fortunate through my involvement with the National Union of Students in the UK to meet students from around the world, including from Swaziland, Egypt, and Libya. Many of them have been and are involved in real and serious struggles to assert their rights against pressures I struggle to comprehend. Often when I meet these students I am overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy. The challenges that we as students face in the UK pale into insignificance when compared to the struggle for basic freedoms and the threat that these people have faced for merely standing up for what they believe in, which often is not really that radical in itself – just the chance to vote and have a say. However, this perspective also motivates me to become a better activist for local domestic issues, whilst doing all I can to provide international support and solidarity.
As a student, I studied social movements with a particular focus on Latin America, and have been consistently inspired by what communities can achieve in the face of adversity. The strength and passion people possess to tirelessly fight to build power for the many, and to challenge those who believe and advocate power for the few, can be transformational. Where we have seen revolutions across the world from people seeking their own liberation and seeking to create democracy, I stand in support of them and their means – however grotesque.
My challenge as the Vice President for Society and Citizenship of NUS UK is how we relate the lessons from such struggles to UK students. If, as Della Porta and Diani (1999) claim, social movements are created from a sense of dissatisfaction amongst the people who then come together collectively to articulate together their frustrations with a particular policy area, just how do we do that on UK campuses? And how can we?
Perhaps it is because of my background as a students’ unionist, but I believe that our on campus organisations, our students’ unions, have to be at the heart of student activism. If students only see their union as providing services and entertainment then we will forever face an up-hill battle. A couple of years ago, we were faced with a range of simple injustices – the introduction of £9,000 fees in higher education and the removal of the education maintenance allowance in further education. This was combined with a Government narrative around the privatisation of education and the cut of just about every possible injection of public funding for educational opportunity, which made our job so much easier in winning public support and building our movement.
In the autumn of 2010, NUS UK set about mobilising students with the messages we had developed into our own counter-narrative. Our success measure was modest – if we could bring 10,000 students to the streets of London we would have achieved something. Imagine our jubilation when the night before we thought that perhaps we would have 20,000 arrive, and then, imagine our utter disbelief when just over 50,000 students and supporters presented themselves on the day. For me, what that proved is that this generation of people do care about the future. For many on that demonstration, the Government changes mattered little or not at all, but rather what the changes would do to those who came next rallied them to take action. And so, they came and they marched. Our failure as a national movement is that we had not anticipated ‘what next’: we saw that one tactic, that one activity as an end, rather than as a start – and it’s fair to say we have been playing catch up ever since.
Our first challenge is to understand the generation in front of us. The traditional lines of politics, of left and right, do not quite fit anymore: they mean little to the students of today. And yet, the messages of Saul Alinsky seem more relevant than ever. That is the message we need to get across: the successful engagement with power structures to secure victory for the good of the community is as crucial today as it ever was. Young people (and of course, not all students are young people) seek to reject power, to reject authority – but to win our battles we need to fully understand and engage with those power structures, and we need to develop a series of tactics that our community can use to work effectively to secure social change in their own interests. Yes, this might mean taking part in physical demonstrations, but it’s also about social media, new types of engagement, new compacts, and a new dynamism. The tactics of the 1970s don’t work in today’s politics and with today’s youth. That is why we have seen an increase in flash mob campaigning and in online activism, and there is more of this to come.
However, whatever the tactics, whatever the power structures, there is one thing that is central – and that is our people. We need to ensure that we are investing in our future leaders and that is exactly the path we are on at NUS. This year alone we have trained over 2,000 activist leaders on campuses across the UK, giving them tools to campaign on issues that affect them and supporting them going forward. We have organised the first ever ‘Student Activism’ conference to bring together students and a wide range of campaigning organisations to appeal to the wider interests of students and demonstrate how a range of big issues are as important to them as anyone in society.
It is also important to remember students do not have a single identity. They are first and foremost citizens but they have a multiplicity of other connections. If they are not interested in a campaign on campus about hidden course costs but are at the centre of their local Occupy movement, does this mean that they are not student activists? Of course not! And that is our challenge. As students’ unionists how do we understand, engage and embrace it? I am still studying that one.
Alinsky, Saul D. (1971) Rules for Radicals. A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals (1972 edn), New York: Vintage.
Della Porta, D., & Diani, M. (1999) Social Movements: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.