Mark Steel: The youth of today – they just don’t show no disrespect

What is striking is that university officials are now backing down

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One of the many upsetting aspects to being in your forties, is hearing people your own age grumbling about “young people” the way we were grumbled about ourselves.

Old friends will complain, “Youngsters today have no respect like we did”, and I’ll think: “Hang on. I remember the night you set a puma loose in the soft furnishings section of Pricerite’s.”

There’s also a “radicals” version of this attitude, a strand within the middle-aged who lament how today’s youngsters, “Don’t demonstrate like we did”, because “we were always marching against apartheid or for the miners but students these days don’t seem bothered”.

It would seem natural if they went on: “The bloody youth of today; they’ve no disrespect for authority. In my day you started chanting and if a copper gave you any lip you gave him a clip round the ear, and he didn’t do it again. We’ve lost those values somehow.”

You feel that even if they did come across a mass student protest they’d sneer. “That isn’t a proper rebellion, they’ve used the internet.

“You wouldn’t have caught Spartacus rounding up his forces by putting a message on Facebook saying ‘Hi Cum 2 Rome 4 gr8 fite 2 liber8 slaves lets kill emprer lol’”.

It doesn’t help that many of the student leaders from the sixties and seventies ended up as ministers or journalists, who try to deny they’ve reneged on their principles by making statements such as: “It’s true I used to run the Campaign to Abolish the British Army, but my recent speech in favour of invading every country in the world in alphabetical order merely places those ideals in a modern setting.”

Also it’s become a tougher prospect to rebel as a student, as tuition fees force them to work while they’re studying. But over the last two weeks students have organised occupations in 29 universities, creating the biggest student revolt for 20 years.

In Edinburgh, for example, the demands were that free scholarships should be provided for Palestinian students, and the |university should immediately cancel its investments with arms companies.

So the first question to arise from these demands must be: what are universities doing having links with arms companies in the first place? How does that help education?

Do the lecturers make an announcement that, “This year, thanks to British Aerospace, the media studies course has possession of not only the latest digital recording equipment and editing facilities, but also three landmines and a Tornado bomber”?

The occupations involve students selecting an area of the university, then staying there, day and night, and organising a series of events and worthwhile discussions while the authorities pay security guards to stand outside and scowl.

Warwick University, for example, organised an “Alternative Careers Fair”, in which, presumably, if someone was brilliant at maths, the careers adviser would say to them, “I suggest you become an accountant for a Peruvian guerilla army.

“They’re looking for people who can reliably file their tax returns before the deadline, as they’re in enough trouble as it is.”

But the extraordinary part about this wave of student protest is that in most universities the authorities, having spent the first week insisting the demands were impossible to meet, have now backed down.

So dozens of Palestinians, who these days seem to be minus a university in Gaza for some reason, will have places here. And several are reviewing their connections to the arms trade. University College London, for example, could be |severing its link to the arms company Cobham.

Presumably this will spark outrage from predictable sources, who’ll yell: “We don’t pay our taxes so that students can go round selflessly helping people who’ve been bombed.

“We fund their education so they can get a degree in business studies and cock up the global economy. If these layabouts can’t buckle down it’s time we cut off the funding we’re not giving them and send them out to work in a job that no longer exists!”

And there’s another impact of a modern student revolt, which makes it even more threatening than similar protests in the sixties. Because most students now have to work to fund their course, so a protest like this will not only infuriate their authorities, it will also bring every pizza delivery company and chicken nuggets shop to its knees at the same time.

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