Student politics: Where are all the activists? Making jokes in the bar

Gone are the days when undergraduates protested and campaigned – now they black up and don fancy dress

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In Rumours, a fairly ratty bar in York that’s popular with students, a higher proportion of people than you might ordinarily expect were wearing Burberry caps last Thursday night. According to one of the more insidious stereotypes of British youth culture, their voices ought to suggest that they were brought up on council estates but this is not the case; stand next to them at the bar (cocktails are two for £6) and you’ll hear the reliably middle-class tones that are pervasive at any Russell Group university. The gear is, in fact, a contribution to a themed pub crawl: “Chavs vs Toffs” – “one night”, as the Facebook ad puts it, of getting “absolutely gazeboed”. The Toffs, at this point, are nowhere in sight or, at any rate, are in disguise.

Jack, a comprehensive-educated first year with a cheering disdain for fancy dress, sits in the corner nursing a pint of Coke and eyes his fellow students with a certain bemused resignation. “It’s a bit alienating, isn’t it?” he mutters. “We’re supposed to be at one of the leading universities in the country.”

I suppose this sort of thing isn’t a terribly big deal in itself. Students have always had an inexplicable enthusiasm for fancy dress and, while this example is a bit wearying, it’s hard to get worked up if that tendency occasionally shades into crass bad taste. The thing is, though, it doesn’t seem to be all that occasional; and it doesn’t seem to be mere bad taste. As a new term begins, it strikes me that, lately, students at the leading universities in the country have exhibited a remarkable enthusiasm for this kind of unpleasantness. It’s not an anomaly; it’s a characteristic.

This isn’t York’s first rodeo. At Halloween, a group of former public schoolboys decided it would be hilarious to black up as part of their Cool Runnings costume. And blacking up has proved inexplicably popular elsewhere, too. (Do they not sell Austin Powers teeth in joke shops any more?) Edinburgh students at a memorably named “beerienteering” event styled themselves as Somali pirates; at UEA, it was Zulu warriors; at the University of London, someone won a fancy dress competition with a combination of boot polish and devil horns.

If you find this sort of thing hilarious, wait till you hear the one about all the misogyny! The laddism that seems such an inescapable part of sports team culture is in fine fettle. At the University of Stirling, members of the hockey team on a public bus sing enthusiastically about sexual assault. At Leeds, men at a “Freshers Violation” club night contribute to a YouTube video of proceedings with a string of enthusiastic rape jokes. At Cardiff, a PowerPoint presentation put on by the university football team offers advice on date rape. And in November alone, the Everyday Sexism Project said it received more than 100 reports of such incidents at universities across the country. Bants!

It is generally assumed that the prevailing culture on campus is overwhelmingly po-faced. I don’t imagine any of the people blacking up think that they’re being racist; probably, if they were forced to articulate a defence beyond “it’s just a joke”, they would mutter something about the overwhelming political correctness that students are saddled with – bans on “Blurred Lines” and Page 3, and something hazy about freedom of speech.

But the supposed ascendancy of that sort of politics is hard to square with the facts. When the York Vision student newspaper ran a story about the group of public schoolboys who blacked up, under the headline “Eton Mess”, the overwhelming majority of readers’ comments complained about anti-public school prejudice, not racism. (One of their number made the perplexing observation that “it’d be a pretty inaccurate Cool Runnings costume if they didn’t black up”, as if the perpetrators were under some appalling obligation to dress as the Jamaican bobsleigh team.)

It is difficult to be empirical but I’m pretty sure that this is new. The problem with undergraduates used to be an excess of idealism. Today, the Chancellor can privatise the student loan book without a whimper of protest, or even of comprehension, from the vast majority. “People didn’t even know what that meant,” says Jo, another bemused civilian student surrounded by imitation chavs. “Student activism is completely dead.” She dates its passing to the tuition fee protests of 2011, when some students were jailed for their part in a demonstration that turned nasty.

“You don’t want to risk getting kicked out or whatever,” she adds. “Universities are businesses now, so aware of their reputations, and they will get rid of you if you threaten to harm that. There’s this obliviousness – this idea that being political is completely naive and your three years here are just about having fun and getting a job at the end of it.”

So what’s changed? Well, here’s a theory: it is, by and large, a crappy time to be young. 21 per cent of under-25s are unemployed, more than three times the proportion of the population as a whole, and a degree is more expensive than ever.

When I was a student almost a decade ago, there was a fuss about top-up fees, but no real sense of crisis; no one left university thinking that they wouldn’t be able to find work. Indeed, student politics could actually mean engagement in things that didn’t affect you directly at all, whether it was the war in Iraq or poverty in Africa. Nothing much seemed to be personally at stake, and it was possible to view even the heaviest aspects of student life as a kind of light-hearted dress rehearsal for the real thing. That isn’t the case any more. “These are supposed to be the best years of our life,” says Patrick, another student at York. “But it certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

You might assume that this would make students more engaged – and, among a certain activist hardcore, that’s probably true. In general, though, the opposite effect has taken hold. In summary: thinking about those kinds of issues is likely to make you miserable, and so most people don’t. No one wants to talk about the future. “You just do not bring up what you’re doing next,” says Patrick, who is in his final year. “Leaving isn’t exciting at all.”

Jo agrees: “The people who talk about the interviews they’ve lined up – everyone hates those guys. I can’t quantify the despair that everyone I know feels about going into the real world.”

So being a student becomes, more than ever, about having fun while you can; but social media records your youthful indiscretions for posterity. Complaining about racism and misogyny is hard to present as particularly light-hearted. Perpetuating it, in contrast, perhaps carries a sense of defiance – an insistence that you aren’t grown up yet. And here we are.

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If there’s a group of students that might be expected to buck this trend, it would be those attending the institutions that make up the University of London. By dint of being the country’s most cosmopolitan and diverse undergraduates, you would expect a greater awareness of why racism and misogyny might not be that funny.

Certainly, the union is among the most politically active in the country. But in the week after a protest at the closure of the Student Union, at which 36 people were arrested, it wasn’t clear that that mood was shared by the wider student body – an impression you might also get from the blacking-up incident mentioned earlier. “Politics is just ignored by most people,” says one of two students (who asks not to be named), standing in the queue for a club night at the Union. “A small minority might pay attention but, in general, people don’t care. The saving-the-whale student – that’s the student of the 1960s or the 1970s. The student of today is hedonistic.”

Her friend agrees. “Everyone thinks you only have three years to let your hair down,” she says. “If it doesn’t affect your career, you don’t have time to think about it. You’re on a conveyor belt.”

It would, perhaps, be a mistake to ascribe trends that are visible everywhere to university life in particular. Apathy is not unique to students; as one says: “University is just a microcosm of the world.” But it is harder to find examples of people wearing cartoonishly offensive costumes when they’re out of the confines of campus life. It is harder to find examples of them making jokes about raping virgins.

So what, You may ask. Student  hijinks, youthful indiscretions, we all have a few skeletons in closets from our salad days, even if the skeletons aren’t, for the most part, covered in boot polish. But it’s an open question whether that culture really will just be forgotten the moment today’s undergraduates get their degrees and move on. And they aren’t going to be students for long.

Apart from anything else, it’s really dispiriting. Perhaps this is just a marker of my excessively bleeding heart, but I always find the tradition of po-faced students a source of good cheer; I like the idea that young people still have the energy and idealism to be humourless when the occasion calls for it. If even they are too disillusioned to keep it up, what hope is there for the rest of us?

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