Students, universities and unions have failed to engage in social activism

By Sacha Perera

Students are the voice of the future, but in these troubling times, one thing is now clear: a lack of engagement with(in) our communities and parent institutions has led us to negate our responsibilities as the next generation of guardians. 

Youth culture has always been connected to activism, social change and progressive protest. Unified by a commitment to not only our own futures but the lives of those who come after us, students are a constructive voice of criticism; bullishly believing in something beyond the reality we’ve found ourselves in. Uncorrupted and hopeful, the opinions of young people are indispensable in creating a better world than the one left to us. 

For our ideas to move from mind to manuscript to mandate, we need to be engaged with, and supported by, attentive institutions that are actively involved in nurturing students and our activities. But currently, students are often perceived – both within and without universities – as being naïve, ill-informed, and incapable of affecting change in their communities or otherwise. 

As the next generation of guardians, students must be encouraged to engage with the complexities and challenges of our world, and crucially, taught that we have a responsibility to do so. It’s a heavy burden, so the weight must be spotted by supporting institutions until we’re ready to shoulder it alone. Still, students must communicate and engage with their counterparts i.e. other students (at their uni and elsewhere), their unions and their universities. 

These three bodies, although autonomous, must work in tandem to communicate, support and engage each other directly to ensure: (1) the development of socially and politically engaged citizens, (2) the progression of social change with the engagement of neighbouring communities and (3) the empowerment of students’ voices which serve to inform, and provide balance to, their elders’ decisions.  

Manchester’s missing communication: A case study in calamity

That idea of a dynamic, active, and socially engaged community seems to be missing from UK universities. It was missing in Manchester, at least. Most students felt more attached to their postcode than their parent institution. And the SU, which should be a hub of engagement and activism, isn’t much more than an expensive and pretty unsatisfying place to have lunch. With the added pressures brought by Covid, this dislocated body’s struggle has been exposed in recent weeks, culminating in a potentially catalytic event. 

Students pay extortionate prices for a product that fails to provide the services it promises, and are simultaneously scapegoated in the face of governmental negligence. Then add being penned in the dark like battery animals, and Owen’s Park residents’ rebellion is sadly justified. I say ‘sadly’ because, although their action is both courageous and commendable, it’s a direct result of a sheer lack of communication, trust and sense of community. Students have been forced to resort to radical action against their parent institution, instead of feeling able to solve their disputes through collaborative and meaningful discussion.

This disunity and distrust is both a symptom and a cause of the university’s initial failure to communicate their controversial plan to control Covid cases by putting up prison-like fences between Halls residents. A fact which is not lost on the student representatives at the SU, who have been “disheartened” to find the “student as partners” rhetoric fed to them before entering office was just that – rhetoric. Although UoM SU recognise they “haven’t done anywhere near enough” to support their electorate and provide them with the information they want and deserve, they argue this is because of being “stuck in a broken system with the financial burden always being placed at the feet of students.”

From dislocation to unification: Finding a solution together

Ironically – as is so often the case – it is in these situations that the signs of change are found. The process begins with the recognition that more needs to be done by students and our representatives. The second part of the equation is understanding the need for the elected – and the electorate – to be given the financial and institutional backing our positions demand. Combined and correctly coordinated, change is certain. 

If students are expected to engage with their unions, their universities and their communities, we must feel that our investment is meaningful and not just superficial. That we as students hold value, that our ideas carry weight. That our potential is being supported and empowered by institutional backing. There must be a tangible investment from universities like Manchester into encouraging students to engage with their social and political responsibilities, rather than treating them as inept children or contained animals.

Expanding schemes similar to Manchester’s Politics Department Student Action Fund, which provides financial aid to students carrying out concrete action that makes a difference to people’s lives, would be a good start to inspire grassroots action. While the immediate reinstatement of the Student Engagement team, along with their interns, would go a long way to redeveloping a formidable institutional channel for students to engage and communicate with the university, and also provide our representatives with essential support at a difficult time. 

But ultimately, the responsibility to ensure lasting and meaningful change lies with students as well as higher authorities. We must engage with our role by realising our ability, and obligation, to use our position as the next generation who can affect a better reality. While systemic education will help foster these ideas – and generate a cross-generational, international culture that encourages citizens of all ages and backgrounds to practice activism – change starts with students realising our potential to be the voice of the future. 

Image courtesy of Antonio Ross (@reflectionless.ross)

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