Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Dispassionate Student

Yesterday I created a few unpublished blogs, with titles on issues I want to rant about over the next few posts.

And yet as I sit here, I'm pretty taken aback by the events of the last hour.

Students have a history of making a stand, and making a difference. In 1941 the White Rose movement was formed by students in Munich, making a defiant stand against the Nazi Regime. The chain of events leading to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were started by peaceful student demonstrations. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed, spurred by Catholic Students who were benefitting from the free education that had come into Northern Ireland in 1947 under the new 'Welfare State' and who were now disenchanted with discrimination from local authorities. The Tiananmen protests in China, culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 came off the back of students dissatisfied with the Chinese method of governance. Around the same time in Europe, students were holding pro-democracy protests in Soviet states, which can be argued to be a catalyst for the rapid downfall of communism.

Yet where is the passionate student today? Last year, a protest organised against fees was held at Stormont. Some 30 students bothered to turn up. Not so long again at UUC, the Union General meeting attracted only 40 people, though this was twice as many as the considerably larger UUJ campus. Talk about issues of Fairtrade and the student is interested in change, but only if someone else will do it for them. Speak about poor parking facilities, and the threat of doing away with Sunday train services for which many students on this campus rely on, and there are complaints, but no action.

It disheartens me to see a vast number of young people here, affected by various issues but so dispassionate and apathetic that they don't want to see anything changed. Maybe it all comes back to selfishness? Why bother campaigning if by the time we have change I won't be here any longer? Why lobby on Fairtrade if all it does is ease my conscience a little?

Today seemed different though. The Students' Union organised a protest against Fees. At the minute in Northern Ireland, tuition fees stand at £3,145 per annum, the maximum which Universities can charge. There is a short term proposed move to increase this by £80, to help 'deal with inflation'. On top of this, Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists is calling for a removal of the cap, meaning that Universities could charge as much as they like. This would lead to an increase to £5,000, £10,000, £20,000...who knows. Ultimately it would weed out the last remaining students from low-income families, and ensure that our institution-educated people are those people who come from middle class backgrounds. The Bible talks about campaigning for the poor, lobbying for justice.

Isaiah says;

"Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."

He goes on to say;

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?"
(58 v 6)

Ultimately the majority of students are not coming to protest because of any God-given command, but I was shocked to see the numbers who started arriving from 12.30 in the Students Union, ready to make their voice heard

Why? The increase is unlikely to effect us, especially for those of us who are in our last year, it's more for those teenagers who will be coming to Uni in the years to come. And yet students wanted to speak for those who couldn't speak. Students wanted to stand up for their brothers and sisters who would be coming to University after them, and didn't want them to be labelled with an even bigger financial burden.

There were probably around 150 people gathered in the Students Union building. Councillors Billy Leonard (Sinn Fein) and Barney Fitzpatrick (Alliance) spoke well and passionately. Their calls for students to continue to be active, and to hold politicians accountable (all 5 major parties in Northern Ireland committed to a removal of students fees in 2004) were greeted with loud cheers.

Followed thereafter a march from the Students Union biulding to the Central building. Shouts and chants were heard. Upon entering the front entrance of the University, these grew louder. Classes were disrupted. Students and staff stopped to watch. Security men stood on the steps of the stairs.
"What do we want?"
- "No Fees"
"When do we want them?"
- "Now!"

We all sat down on the floor, the local photographer clicking like crazy, the media students grabbing their soundbytes for their voxpops as the chants continued, growing louder. The Site VP tried to make a speech but could barely be heard above the racket.

I was in awe. Here were students, doing what students do best. Having their voice heard. Making a stand, against perceived injustice.

The Assembly should be listening. The University shoud be scared. And I think they were. The poor security chaps didn't seem to know what to do. As I made my way up the stairs for the class I was late for, I was grabbed on the arm and told I could not do so, that I wasn't allowed up there with a sign (which was a mock of a Father Ted protest). When I went round and used the lift, there the little bald man on an ego trip was again, having cleverly scented my devious plan. In the end, my class was cancelled, presumably due to the Lecturer being unable to have herself heard as the deafening roars continued.

If we students ever realise the potential to change the society we live in, the world will be an exciting (for some) and scary (for others) place.

I am a happy man. The Revolutionary Student isn't dead. He's just having a break

Further Reading

UUSU Campaign Against Fees- http://www.uusu.org/content/index.php?page=10298

Convert your universty to Fairtrade -http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/get_involved/campaigns/fairtrade_universities/default.aspx

What does the Bible say about the poor? - http://www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/learn/g8-bibleverses

NICRA - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NICRA

Tiananmen Protests - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989

The White Rose Movement - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_rose

The Increase of fees
Previous increase - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/7135588.stm
Recent proposals - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/7728579.stm

Political Parties views on Fees (including Alliance) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=164160&sectioncode=26


Thom said...

haha, great post baye. Now where was I Tuesday at 12.30...

Rabelais said...

Hi Ulsterman,
Read this and the rest of your blog with interest. I'm a graduate of UU also and I'm glad to hear that there is some life left in student protest. This is no thanks to some previous incumbents of the students' union at UU

A student’s union general meeting in 1995 (I think) approved the outlawing of any club or society on campus that was affiliated to a political party or organisation. It was an unprecedented example of students voting to curtail their own rights, made all the more astonishing by its timing. This was in the wake of loyalist and republican ceasefires, and at the beginning of a faltering peace process. Incredible that at such a critical moment students simply walked away from politics.

A students’ union representative explained to me at the time that they didn’t want political parties on campus raising the sectarian temperature among students. A fair enough point you might think but then why wasn’t the decision taken during the troubles rather than in the new dispensation?

Whatever the dubious reasons for the ‘no politics’ clause, the fact was that the students’ union was tilting at windmills. Political clubs and societies at the University of Ulster had witnessed a shocking decline in membership throughout the 90s and many had fallen into disuse. Students had simply turned their back on politics long before the Students’ Union decided to kick the remaining life out of organisations that were already on the critical list.

My own feeling with hindsight is that the banning of political societies only confirmed what had been obvious for some time. Students were trading in their citizenship for vacuous consumer sovereignty. As a consequence they were beginning to show all the signs of the sort of myopia and complacency that sees everything as a lifestyle choice.

Politics were chased of campus just as the corporations were being welcomed with open arms. For along time, at any Fresher’s Fair, the political stalls seemed to be withering away or were being hounded to the fringes, and in their place where the high street banks and mobile phone companies vying for a stake in the lucrative student and graduate market. Their philosophy was simple – relieve them of their loans today, secure their salaries and wages tomorrow.

Hopefully this trend is being reversed because fees have turned education into a little more than another commodity.

bertmart said...

Thanks Rabelais.
The restrictions on political clubs has been lifted. At UUC this has led to a Socialist Society, a Young Unionist Society and some form of Young Sinn Fein (though I'm not sure if they are within the Union yet). There is a political protocol sheet to be signed.

I welcome such societies as a means of opening up students minds to politics. The reality is that students don't care. They are indifferent to local politics, and as such the educated who we would hope are pushing to get involved in a sphere of influence are not, leaving the route open to our country being governed by the uneducated (e.g. an Education Minister with no university degree)

As long as NI politics continues on its hard unionist/nationalist lines it looks like it will remain unappealing to those people with the capabilities and education who can make a difference