So This Is Student Activism?

Emma Halahan asks what it means to be a student activist in the 21st Century and whether the student voice still counts.

For many, student activism denotes the image of sit-ins, marches, protests and glamorous arrests with nights spent in a cell for the cause. That was the student activism of our parents and grandparents generation: unapologetic, radical and at the core of the nuclear disarmament, civil rights and women’s rights movements. This, however, is the 21st century and the face of activism and what it means to be an activist has changed significantly. Are students still at the heart of global movements?

For previous generations, universities underpinned radical movements. They were the organising body mobilising large groups of students, many of whom were learning about the world’s injustices in detail for the first time. Fuelled by anger at the establishment, it’s the students that gave us the sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement and built up much of the grassroots network for the CMD.

Today, student activism seems to look a little different. The National Union of Students (NUS) has organised a lot of different protests over the last few years, fighting against cuts, the rising of tuition fees and the broader lack of funding aimed at young graduates. What is striking is that the protests seemingly attract the same crowd of extremely radical activists whose political opinion lie way outside of the norm, each time. Whilst I know people outside of that broad generalisation and bracket who attend protests, it is a very small percentage of the student body who attend them nonetheless and some universities have no presence at NUS protests at all.

Twitter can become the organising force of movements so long as protest and physical demand for change is still at the heart of activism.

The landscape of student activism is changing. Instead of large amounts of students taking to the streets, it feels like much of the world’s political discussion, even in the White House, takes place on Twitter. Many young people take to social media to air political opinion and anger, but does it really count as activism? Can contributing to a growing voice on social media count as active when it is intrinsically so passive? It’s a growing stream of thought within activism, as so much of the landscape transfers digitally and activist media like podcasts grow exponentially, there must be some value placed on this new breed of activism, one which students are once again at the heart of.

The issue is, however, that passively voicing discontent is not the same as actively doing something about it. Whilst it is fine for students to air their opinions, not asking directly for change contributes to the complaining culture we are blamed for having developed as millennials. For student activism in the Twittersphere to work, we need to ask directly for change beyond just being angry.

Twitter can become the organising force of movements so long as protest and physical demand for change is still at the heart of activism. The proliferation of information means we are exposed to far more atrocities and injustices than our parents and grandparents were, and so we are much more awake and in tune with the world than our predecessors ever could be. Consequentially, student activism has never been as plugged-in to global networks as it is now thanks to digital activist channels.

If we can utilise the broad audience of Twitter and be seen for asking for simple and sensible change, as opposed to radically opposing everything, we might just cultivate a further generation of activists. Movements like Black Lives Matter, the rise of trans rights, and the importance of consent have all been fuelled by student activists and unions. We are fundamentally still at the heart of the global movement.

The question is, will student activism still alienate much of the student body by simply being too radical? Or will it instead mobilise a wider force of students by diluting its asks and an all important image rebrand that focuses on digital media?