The UK has just seen the latest in an ongoing string of student protests, stretching back a few years to the beginning of the current coalition government. The most recent protests have been around the collusion of university authorities and the police to block student demonstrations and occasionally even arrest ringleaders. A number of universities have applied for, and been granted, injunctions to stop any protest on their campuses for the next six months – an appalling betrayal of the principle of free speech that such institutions are supposed to stand for.
UK students aren’t the only ones kicking up a fuss over their conditions – there was a widespread student movement in the Quebec province of Canada a year ago over rising tuition fees; and in the past week we’ve seen uprisings across Egyptian universities after police shot a student in Cairo. All of these protests have their own individual contexts – the situations in London and Cairo are obviously very different – but they raise the question of why students worldwide are becoming more politically active.
One big reason is that students, with the time they have to think deeply about the world, are ideally placed to witness the privatization of society now taking place. In many cases, their universities provide a prime example – departments that are seen as less ‘economically useful’ are being shut down, and employees, from the cleaning staff right the way up to the lecturers, are being laid off or having their wages frozen. Rather than academic excellence, it is clear that many universities around the world are now more concerned with profit, and with contributing to the continuation of the economic status quo.
Perhaps an even more important reason is that students are smart enough to see the lack of opportunities that will be on offer to most of them when they graduate. They were sold a dream that if you work hard at university, you’ll succeed, no matter where you started in life. But with the increasing divisions in society between the rich and the poor, students can now see that most of them will actually come out as losers in the game of life, no matter how hard they work. Success and wealth is reserved for those who are already ‘in the club’ – they have rich parents, or family connections that will help them get the few remaining well-paid jobs. For most students, the future is bleak – a minimum wage job in Starbucks, and a mountain of debt. We are creating a society of born winners and losers.
As some of the most outspoken critics of this situation, and as some of the people with the most to lose, the students are now facing repression to stop their message spreading. Shot in Cairo, ‘kettled’ and arrested in London – anything to stop them reaching out to others who are losing their livelihoods and their chances in this age of austerity. We should all do our best to help spread the spirit and philosophy of the students to more people – we need a society which places the human values and needs of knowledge, creativity, and justice as its main priority; rather than one which places profit above all, and exacerbates the divide between those winners and losers.
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