The changing face of student activism

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Now that we’re in 2014, you will have noticed that we are entering the 50th anniversary of Lancaster University’s opening. Given that hundreds of thousands of students have now passed through the University over the last half a century, it is interesting to look back and consider how different student life was back at the University’s inauguration. In particular, with many students across the country actively debating and campaigning on issues directly effecting us today, it is interesting to look back and examine some of the policies, ideologies, and scandals which so worried our counterparts in the mid-60s, and whether they were more active when it came to protesting and campaigning than we are today.

Nowadays, the National Union of Students (NUS) represents the majority of students across the country, and campaigns on various issues which affect the UK student body as a whole. One of the most notable protests of recent times was the London student protests in 2010, where over 50,000 people came to march against rising tuition fees and cuts to education. However, when the NUS was founded in 1921, it was explicitly designed to operate outside of the “political and religious” arena, and so had very little involvement in student activism. In fact, student activism was almost unheard of until the 1960s.

It was this era when students came to the fore in campaigning for broad social reform, not least trying to end the Vietnam War in the early part of the decade. Early protests like these led to greater organisation in student activism, and in 1966 the Radical Student Alliance and Vietnam Solidarity Campaign were formed, both of which became centres for the protest movement. The first student sit-in began at the London School of Economics in 1967, led by their students’ union over the suspension of two undergraduates. The sit-in worked. This, and a national student rally of 100,000 held in the same year are widely considered the start of the student movement.

In fact, Lancaster was regarded as one of the most radical universities out there; our 60s forerunners campaigned for causes as grand as freedom of speech and as scrupulous as lowering city bus fares. In November 1967, an early student newspaper here, Carolynne, reported on 70 students who had gone to a dance but later had to be locked in a garage after starting a dispute over fares there. No time or place was immune to student activism. Just a few months into Lancaster’s life, in 1965, there was a street march against the violence that could have arisen from Rhodesia’s threatened unilateral declaration of independence. In the same year, with their minds closer to home, students tried to crash the visit of Peter Griffiths MP, who was elected on the provocative slogan “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour”, at the University Conservative Association. The Marxist Society was not afraid to accuse him of racism.

These protests do not seem all too different from the variety of campaigns we can see on campus every week, run by dozens of societies and groups around the University. However, it would seem that the UK student body at large is today more concerned with more immediate problems; tuition fees have been a political stumbling block for a number of years now, and more recently students have raised further questions over the price of University accommodation. Perhaps most revealing is the non-student activism on campus. University staff strikes have been a regular sight in the past year or so, and although we do tend to be supportive, we don’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our comrade lecturers in the wind and rain and we certainly don’t want the Universities and Colleges Union to launch a marking boycott. This is not to say that today’s students are less conscious of the problems in the wider world. Perhaps now that we are more connected than ever to the rest of the globe, we see more fit to protect our own interests for the time being.

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