Navigating politics at university: the perks and the pitfalls

Starting at university can be amazing. You are thrown together with people from all over the UK, even the world, with all different backgrounds, experiences and ideas. It’s brilliant because it feels like everyone you meet is so open-minded. It’s refreshing to step outside the narrow socio-economic and political circle in which you grew up. Most people at university are interested in politics therefore discussions flow fervently.

Then suddenly somehow this eye-opening experience turns sour. The interesting debates turn into heated arguments and you end up opposing the people who agree with you. Perhaps you are making small talk and the conversation escalates into a political mine field. Maybe you have opinions, but everyone else talks so confidently and loudly you decide to just nod along instead. Politics at university can be incredibly difficult but then again it’s one of the best places to get involved.

Societies, such as the Conservative Future, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Young Greens, are a safe way to immerse yourself in university politics, yet politics will not be contained in these neatly labelled, designated slots. In a politically aware environment such as university you can find yourself slipping into contentious territory anywhere, be it with your new flat mates or in the smoking area of the LCR. Politics will always be personal and you can find yourself falling out with friends and ending up frustrated or angry. You can feel attacked if someone questions your principles, or frustrated that someone won’t accept what you believe to be common sense.

Essentially we all want people to like us so its always worth remembering in the heat of an argument that political disagreements aren’t worth losing friendships over. Perhaps the person you are arguing with has never thought about your perspective before. On the other hand, some ideas are deep rooted; you will never change them and that’s fine. You might never be best friends with someone at the opposite end of the political spectrum; you might have to avoid all political talk around them, but getting along with people you disagree with is an essential life skill. Then again, we all have secret deal-breakers; and points which can send someone straight to your blacklist.

Additionally, don’t forget that university is fundamentally an academic setting and therefore you are bound to meet people who have studied the academic side of politics, for their degree or for fun. This is a very different world to the average debates over a beer in which most people dabble. Reading the newspaper and having an interest is not enough to penetrate the academic bubble. As in all academic circles, there is an ongoing dialogue between academics all over the world who write long papers on in-depth subjects, and sometimes you end up talking to someone who forgets you are outside this circle.

Of course you shouldn’t assume that just because someone talks confidently of impressive sounding terms like “quantitative easing” that they are an expert on everything. Sometimes they are just the annoying college kid in ‘Good Will Hunting’ and need Matt Damon to take them down a peg. A lot of the time politics is more opinion than fact and lots of people have a strong conviction based on a shallow knowledge. If someone’s argument is sounding a bit dubious you can always have a stealthy Google on your phone, and if your gut says you disagree then you probably have reason to question them.

You are also bound to meet people who have all the big ideas yet never seem to do anything about them. They are the ones who see themselves as movers and shakers, but who are in fact the moaners and shirkers. It is difficult to watch people make lists of objectives and have heated discussions but never actually do anything. You need to remember that their hearts are in fact in the right place and that if you want to see action, you should probably join a society.

It sounds obvious, but politics is important, so you should never be put off getting involved, especially at university where there are so many opportunities. Don’t be scared to discuss politics; whether you talk to the academic, the know-it-all, or the back seat revolutionary, hold your ground, but also question your own beliefs.

You can change your mind and debate is the most interesting way to consolidate or examine what you believe.

If you don’t get too angry, if you don’t take it too personally, talking to people with different opinions can be thought-provoking for both of you.

You might even find when you go back home the stinted conversation suddenly appears lacklustre compared with passionate university politics.


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