By Becky Wilson
In the 1960s, students were a formidable force of activism. Groups such as the Radical Student Alliance helped organise protests which attracted up to 100,000 students, involving barricades, sit-ins and even the breaking down of riot control gates. They rallied against issues varying from the British government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, to the rising price of food in a student canteen.
Compared to this historical hotbed of student activism, today’s students are often dismissed as politically complacent. In Durham, there does appear to be an element of truth to this stereotype. Recent protests against rising accommodation fees have not matched the scale, length or impact of student activism of the past, and earlier this year, only 18.5% of students voted in Durham Students’ Union Presidential election. Political disengagement was also exhibited outside of the University bubble. Many students decided not to vote in the 2015 General Election, despite national campaigns such as ‘Bite the Ballot’, set up with the intention of harnessing the potential power of young voters.
Is all this because students are simply no longer interested in politics?
George Thin, second-year student and Media and Publicity Officer for Durham Young Greens, argues that this is not the case. “I don’t believe our generation is politically complacent.” As proof, he cites the ‘green surge’: the 100% increase in national membership of the Young Greens, between March and October last year.
“In Durham too there is a lively political community, and communication between different groups, especially on the left.”
Sofiat Kolawole, a second-year student from St. Aidan’s, believes that while Durham students have a considerable interest in political issues, this often fails to translate into action. “From my experience, people here tend to get very heated about certain topics that interest them, and can debate endlessly about it. But they just go in circles.”
Harry Cross, co-chair of Durham Students for University Reform, is also adamant that Durham students are not politically complacent.
“Events pertaining to the General Election in Durham were well attended so I think people are interested. Many people have strong political opinions but do not join any political parties during their time at university.”
Rather than political apathy, students’ unwillingness to affiliate themselves with mainstream parties may instead indicate both a mistrust in and distaste for traditional politics. A recent survey by The Observer found that many of the issues dominating discourse in the recent election do not matter to young people. Immigration is only 17th on their list of concerns, while the vast majority do not want an EU referendum. Unsurprisingly, 18-25 year olds care most about fair wages and house prices, issues often drowned out by the more contentious themes of immigrants, benefit ‘scroungers’, and the NHS.
George Thin believes that young people should not be criticised for choosing non-establishment parties – or even refusing to vote altogether. “It suggests the perceived inadequacy of mainstream politicians rather than any youthful complacency.”
Interestingly, the reasons behind students’ political disengagement on a national level can also be applied to university politics. Just as national politicians fail to attract young voters by overlooking their biggest concerns, Harry Cross argues that the Students’ Union policies are sometimes misguided.
“The DSU has sought to tackle high levels of apathy in student elections with more visible publicity and campaigning. However, I think it is more important for candidates to consider what role the Union can play in winning new rights and services for students.
“I worry that too many Union officers see themselves as employees of the University in a managerial position. The DSU is also needed to provide an effective opposition to unpopular decisions by the University. I am sad to say that until recently the DSU has had very little to say on the key issues that affect the cost of living for students, notably spiralling college rents.”
Rhys Jones, a second-year English student, agrees that the Students’ Union does not take enough steps to benefit students. “I think turnout is low because interest is low. Students aren’t interested in the DSU because they don’t see how it affects or improves their time at Durham.”
Despite this, George Thin points to Durham’s unique collegiate system for student’s disengagement with on-campus politics. “The colleges in Durham probably don’t help the Union, as they play the same role in some respects. This doesn’t mean that the DSU is unimportant.”
While the students who voted in the recent Student Officer elections are still in the minority, it is important to note that turnout increased by 15% on the previous year. Current SU President Dan Slavin is optimistic that this number will continue to grow. “We are continually working to engage more students in the democratic process and we hope to continue to improve year-on-year.”
And outside of the Students’ Union, Harry Cross believes Durham’s student population is genuinely capable of making an impact. He cites the success for Durham Students for University Reform in February, when it organised the largest student protest in the University for 14 years, on the issue of college rents. “What’s important now is not to lose momentum. Despite our record-breaking turnouts we have yet to organise a protest in good weather, so when we do the University had better watch out!”
Illustration by Mariam Hayat