Campaigns from the campus

Global issues are spurring students into action. But, says Tim Walker, local protests have most effect

Thursday 08 December 2005 01:00 GMT

tudent tastes have changed since the Seventies. Where once a lava lamp sat on the bedsit floor, casting a glow across a Che Guevara poster, there now rests a dog-eared copy of Naomi Klein's No Logo. Where once a student's prized accessory was the CND badge pinned proudly to his leather-patched tweed, today it is a white rubber wristband. Or a yellow one. Or a pink one. Student activism has evolved, and today's global issues - poverty, war, climate change and the rest - have spurred a new generation of young adults into action.

While students joined the march through London to protest against the Iraq war in 2003, and took to the streets of Edinburgh this year to Make Poverty History during the G8 conference, they have achieved more tangible results on their own doorsteps. In October, Sussex became the latest in a line of universities to boycott Coca-Cola on campus, due to the company's allegedly dubious dealings in Colombia (where trade unionists have been assassinated, imprisoned and disappeared) and India (where it is said to be extracting too much groundwater from dry areas, and polluting others with toxic "fertiliser").

Last month, London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was forced by students and staff to sell its 62,000 shares in major British arms companies, after the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) published a list of 67 UK universities holding such investments. While SOAS's students' union may be known for strident activism, it is not alone. CAAT is in contact with similar campaigns on campuses across the country, including at Cambridge, Exeter, London Metropolitan and Swansea. A demonstration of several hundred students at St Andrews, usually the politest of student bodies, persuaded principal Brian Lang to commit to an ethical investment strategy beginning in the New Year.

"An ethical investment campaign is a fantastic way to link global issues - about corporate social responsibility for multinationals, the environment and human rights - to our own campuses," says Robbie Blake, co-ordinator of St Andrews' ethical investment campaign.

Alain Desmier, the president of Exeter's students' guild, which has just seen its own clean investment campaign meet with success, believes student activism has to touch on local issues to be effective. "Last year, we got 2,000 people to protest against the closure of the chemistry, music and Italian departments," he says. "They closed chemistry and music, but we saved Italian. There are 12,000 students at Exeter. To get 2,000 involved in the protest was pretty impressive. To be honest, people will often only rally around things if they think it affects them directly."

Blake and his group were inspired by similar student-led campaigns, such as that at Edinburgh, where two years ago the university's People and Planet society persuaded the university to adopt a clean investment policy, and to dump their shares in British American Tobacco and Nestlé.

Thanks again to student pressure, Edinburgh is also one of 21 recognised Fairtrade universities in Britain, using Fairtrade-approved suppliers, where possible, for coffee, tea and chocolate sold on campus. "These campaigns are very proficiently executed," says Blake. "Intelligent, well targeted and well researched. People hark back to the Sixties when almost everyone was engaged with activism, but there aren't so many people involved today. It's just that those who are involved plan and target their protests better, so they can potentially have a bigger impact."

If such campaigns are so well planned and executed, it is partly due to the existence of national umbrella organisations for politically active students, like People and Planet. The group's website is a forum for student campaigners and includes a guide explaining how to organise an effective campus campaign. They even hold a week-long summer campaigning school for students across the UK.

"There's definitely a growth in awareness of internationalism among young people," says James Lloyd, People and Planet's head of campaigns. "We've seen a massive increase in our student membership - not just people ticking boxes, but active involvement in campaigning."

The organisation's Edinburgh group has doubled in size in a couple of years, says Oliver Munnion, its vice-president. "The latest group of first-year students, in particular, are very aware and eager to do things."

Kierra Box, 20, a student at Oxford, was recently named as one of "10 people who will change the world" by the New Statesman, after winning awards for Hands Up For..., the organisation that she and some friends founded in the run up to the Iraq war. After collecting almost 3,000 paper handprints from young people, inscribed with their thoughts on the imminent conflict, the group planted the hands in Parliament Square and Hyde Park. Despite the projects that followed under the Hands Up For... banner, the group was forced to disband. "It was becoming harder and harder to run the organisation whilst maintaining our studies," Box says. "I shut it down because we were claiming to run something that wasn't really happening."

Box, who is launching a new website next month, is wary of claims that student activism is enjoying some sort of heyday. "Student culture is less politicised than it used to be. There's less a rise in student militancy, and more a rise in awareness, intelligence and a willingness to discuss the issues. And all it took was a single large media story - the war - to really engage young people."

Professor Tim O'Shea, Edinburgh's principal, has worked with student leaders to develop the university's policies on ethical investment, fair trade and the environment, and sees much that is encouraging in today's student politics. "My instinct is that students are more interested in altruistic action and development than they are in party politics now," he says. "I don't think, as some do, that they're disengaged or apolitical. When I was an undergraduate in the Sixties, we had many more straightforward political societies. Nowadays, in the students' union, you're more likely to see posters about poverty, Aids or climate change, than advertising, say, the student Labour group. That's a good thing."

But not every issue is met with a consensus by all students, and however well researched it may be, some think that activism can still be misguided. Joe Rukin is treasurer of the National Union of Students (NUS), which also puts him on the board of NUS Services Limited (NUSSL). At this year's NUS conference, he expects to see a motion for NUSSL to boycott Coca-Cola across the country, a move that gives the organisation cause for concern.

"The simple fact is that the only companies who can provide the volume of product we're looking at are Coke and Pepsi," he says, "and Pepsi's ethical record is just as bad as Coke's, if not worse. It's debatable whether a boycott would achieve anything. Nestlé is the most boycotted company in the world, but in the last 30 years, very little has changed regarding its stance on baby milk products." NUSSL favour a policy of "constructive engagement" with Coca-Cola, believing that they can influence the company more effectively if they do business with them.

This suggestion meets with scorn from pro-boycott campaigners, but Rukin says it is a proven strategy. "We've achieved a lot with Coke," he says. "For example, they have now recognised the International Union of Food Workers - who represent most of their workforce - for the first time."

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