Is protesting an integral part of the student experience?

Last Saturday, students took to the streets of London and Manchester to stage the latest in a series of protests against higher tuition fees and public spending cuts. To many, these demonstrations marked the end of what had seemed like a decade of student apathy and a return to the “good ol’ days” of students protesting. But is it fair to call protesting an integral part of the university experience? We spoke to a few people, some of whom went on the protests and some of whom did not, to find out.

Tim Rees Jones, studying History at University College London:

“To suggest that protesting is integral to the student experience is to deny the authenticity of the causes for protest. We do not protest because it is what is expected of us, but because the subjects are of vital importance. The current unprecedented cuts to education funding demand a response. The Mubarak regime in Egypt deserves international condemnation.

Protest is a legitimate and direct vehicle of democracy. It is neither the preserve of students, nor is it a necessary part of being a student. The focus should be on the subjects of the protest. Everybody should have a voice, but ultimately it should be the causes that matter.”

Rose Williams, works for Oxford University libraries:

“During my three years as a student, I never went on a protest. Some might say that I have missed out on some essential part of the ‘student experience’ whereby, full of hope and conviction, young people take to the streets and march for what they believe in. I do not see it that way. It is not that I see protest as futile, or that I do not sympathise with the causes of recent protests against climate change, cuts, and fees. For me, being a student was about being introduced to and thinking about different ideas, philosophies and world views. However, it is difficult to know what to make of all these ideas with any certainty, and to form opinions that are authentically our own. Protesting is an assertion of the confidence we have in our own opinions, which can be difficult if they have not yet been fully developed.”

Joe Smith, studying English at Westminster University:

“Protesting is fun! I got involved in my University's Fight Cuts campaign after walking past a protest outside a governor's meeting on my way to class. I stopped to see what all the fuss was about, I joined in and by the end of the day I was occupying the Vice-Chancellor's office. Since then I've protested many more times, side by side with other students and union members all over London. While I feel I'm a fairly politically conscious person there is no doubt that I wouldn't have been so keen to get involved had I been handed a flyer or attended a seminar. There is something visceral and incredibly exciting about being in a crowd of people who you know feel the same way as you do.

One of my friends described is as ‘like being at a gig except the band are hitting you’. For me the protesting came first and then I became interested in the ideology behind it. I don't think that makes me a thug. I think the point of protest is to make people aware of your cause. With that in mind I would encourage all students to try protesting at least once. Aside from it being a hoot there is a long and illustrious history of student protest. Kent State, Tiananmen Square and Paris in ’68 are all examples of students having a profound effect on the world. Going to protests used to be an essential part of student life; I have a feeling that over the next three years it will become one again.”

Alice Jowitt, studying English at Manchester University:

“As a student, it often feels like this is my last shot at ‘sticking it to The Man’. But I don’t think the actual act of protesting can be labelled as any more integral to a student’s life than, for example, a young professional’s. Depending on the campaign, we should all be expected to care, but it is often put on us students because we have (supposedly) so much time on our hands and the reckless passion of youth.

Speaking from my experience at Manchester, I don’t think many of your average students could honestly say protesting has played a significant part in their experience. Realistically, the majority of the protesting and discussion occurs on the sofas and beds of student houses over beer and cigarettes and more beer. We care, but do we have to leave our houses to do it? For me, I think it’ll be when I enter the ‘real world’ and become more informed that I will properly succumb to the need to protest.”

Jonathan Moses, organizer for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC):

“There is a myth in this country that protest is a British “heritage” (Aaron Porter, president of the NUS) or a rite of passage for students and other neatly defined market groups to consume and then forget. Hundreds of thousands of people did not take to the streets in recent months because it was an “integral part of the student experience” but because they saw through shallow ideological attempts to irrevocably transform the nature of Higher Education.

Of course, there are contributions that students can make to activism that few other social actors can; and the experiences they have now gained through collective action will be fundamental in aiding the expanding anti-cuts movement. Protest, particularly occupations and other forms of high-level direct action, often prove to be transformative moments in people’s lives. They are a far cry from frivolous phases.

This government has no legitimacy for the severity of its education reforms and cuts programme. That is why 2011 will see further mass mobilisation from students, from unions, and from the public: whether it’s defending EMA on January 26th, or the demonstrations in London and Manchester on January 29th.

So no more talk of a rite of passage please: protest is not a commodity, and it has no place on a university prospectus.”

Holly Gillway, studying Management Studies with German at Nottingham University:

“I'm a strong believer in people's right to protest and I genuinely believe that taxpayers' money is well spent on protecting that right. Protesting is, in essence, the electorate's way of holding the government to account and for this reason I support students' right to protest as much as I do anyone else’s, but not more.

I don't believe that it should be any more integral a part of students' lives than it is for other members of the electorate. However, students are perhaps more likely to protest because they generally have more time to get involved with political issues and attend mid-week protests than other people with full time jobs. This means that information and advertising about upcoming protests seems more readily available on campus than anywhere else. I am therefore inclined to believe that a part of the student life can be protesting for the sake of protesting, because University is the most opportune time to experience it.”

Raymond Thompson, post-graduate student in the English department at University College London:

“While recent political events on the national stage have drawn media attention to the potential for students to efficiently and passionately engage in meaningful forms of protest, it cannot, I think, be said that protesting is an ‘integral part of the student experience’. Those who yearn for that experience to resemble the nostalgia-tinted images of the 1968 protests of our parents' generation would do well to remember that at my university, UCL, a recent referendum of the whole student body on whether or not the Students’ Union should support its recent occupation posted results of 842 for, 773 against, out of a total student body of nearly twenty thousand. The changing demographic and economic environment for students in the UK suggests that protesting will become ever less important in the student experience, regardless of what many, myself included, would hope for.”

'What do you think? Have you been involved in the student protests, or are you staying well away? How important an experience do you think it is? We want to know. Tell us in the comments below.

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