Is this the end of mass student protest?

I began writing this from a graffitied wooden desk on the third floor of a spectacular Waterstones branch in Bloomsbury, Central London – a thriving student area, home to three of the capital’s biggest universities – UCL, SOAS and the University of Westminster. It happens to be the very same desk my Father sat at 45 years ago to pen a comment piece on one of the first ever student protests against the potential introduction of tuition fees as a student at the then University of London. Those protestors were victors – as were the following generation, with fees not fully introduced in England and Wales until 1998, despite many failed attempts by numerous governments. And it is with this in mind I feel somewhat deflated, having just returned from the National Student Strike just around the corner in Torrington Square.

The NUS (National Union of Students) have been advertising this event nationally for a couple of months now, in protest against the increased marketisation of higher education and the threat of fees being raised yet further in years to come. Back in 2011, the extraordinarily sharp rise of fees (from £3000 to £9000) sparked what would become known as Britain’s most significant period of mass protest by the young in generations. Which is why I was so shocked and disappointed at the extremely low turnout at the “protest” I went to today,

There were approximately 300 people in attendance. Three hundred students out of a total of 2.8 million higher education students across England and Wales. While I’ve been disappointed with similar numbers at the past few student protests I’ve attended in recent months, I can’t help but feel there must be some wider issues at play here, given this was a nationally advertised event by the National Union of Students – the obvious one to suggest being poor management and organisation at the top of the NUS. While there might be a case for this, I’d like to point to a seemingly more systemic issue that has the potential to lead to what could be the beginning of the end for the mass student protest.

Our generation has and continues to face significant political change. From Brexit to the pandemic, alongside more systemic issues such as the increased marketisation of education, many of us have become overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of such large issues. Many of us are simply exhausted by the fact our protests and rejections never seem to be heard, respected or actioned.

In considering this, I can begin to understand why such an event as the one I have been to today is met with such poor attendance. But we must be acutely aware it is such frustration and hopelessness allowing the power and dominance of the political elite to thrive. When the majority of us give up our right and willingness to protest, we hand them a golden ticket by which they can utilise our political apathy as a tactic to further pursue the selfish policies they crave in the name of economic efficiency. It is one of the political and social weapons they know they can get away with using very easily and very quickly.

Therefore, those of us who continue to cling on to some form of political hope should consider it their civic duty to begin to think of new, innovative ways to re-engage the student community in determining the fairness, effectiveness and basic morality of their education. We live in a tough and overwhelming political environment – but one in which the collective determination and mass organisation of the country’s youth can still, and always will, hold ultimate power over it. We just need to remind ourselves of it now and then.

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May 2022
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