I am truly heartened and inspired by the current wave of student protests, especially the occupations. For too long the student population has seemed depoliticised and anaesthetised – after all, if the people in their late teens and early twenties aren’t full of ideals and hope and fury, what chance have the rest of us got? I found this column I wrote for Word magazine in April 2008, which paints a pretty gloomy picture. However, I am delighted to have been proven wrong! (Also, since my monthly Whatever column in Word magazine ended this month, after four happy and diverse years, and none of them were ever posted online anywhere, I feel it is my duty to occasionally post them here, even if time has overtaken them, as with this one.) For historical interest only …
WHATEVER by Andrew Collins [printed, Word magazine, April 2008]
Students today are stressed and skint – but unlike Paris in May 1968, I don’t predict a riot
Last month, I risked feeling irretrievably old and returned to my old university in Northampton as a visiting lecturer. No, I didn’t get paid as much as Martin Amis, but then seats of learning are not normally magnets for the mercenary. I suspect my vastly overpumped sense of “giving something back” stems from the guilt of having enjoyed a generous grant for the three years of my art degree – which I spent exclusively on magic markers and gouache – and supplementary benefit during the summer holidays. Under Thatcher! Giving a day over to some whey-faced undergrads and telling them how I got where I am today is, frankly, the least I can do.
They were, I figured, a partisan crowd: first-, second- and third-year graphic design and fine art students in the very hall where, in week one of my art foundation course in 1983, we were instructed to build a tent, sit in it and draw the “space” inside. I threw this bonding anecdote into my 90-minute talk, which covered my higher educational “journey” from Northampton to London, and the eventual dichotomy of having to squash the square peg of artistic self-expression into the round hole of commercial art. Nobody slept or crept out. Once I was done, the course tutor thanked me, threw open the discussion and asked for questions.
Nothing. Silence. A sea of blank and mildly embarrassed faces. I fielded not one single question from almost a hundred degree students in the prime of their life and presumably fizzing with creative carbonate. I was forced to conclude that nobody had anything they wanted to ask. I may as well have sent a hologram and saved the train fare. I’ve done far shorter speeches at Rotary Clubs and literary festivals and libraries and the questions have come thick and fast.
Could it be that all 2.3 million of the UK’s traffic-cone-collecting demographic don’t ask questions any more? I posed this question on my blog and a number of suggestions were put forward. Maybe today’s students think they know all the answers? Thanks to the accessibility of the internet, there is no mystery or magic surrounding anything or any person now – want to know something? Tap it into Google. Art students, in particular, are getting less bohemian, more conservative, cowed by vocational fear of the real world. A student called Joe confirmed that questions rarely get asked in any kind of lecture environment. He puts it down to lack of confidence and fear of saying something, like, stupid in front of your, like, peers and shit.
I personally worry that students have been permanently constipated by New Labour education policy, with its emphasis on tests and targets. In an illuminating piece in the Education Guardian before Christmas, Fay Schlesinger asked why students have stopped protesting. She cited an NUS demo against top-up fees in London that drew only 3,500 from an expected 10,000 placard-brandishers. You’d think £3,000 a year would be enough to get them out of their beds, but no. God help us if there’s an unpopular foreign war.
Government minister for students, Lord Triesman, blames “drinking and clubbing” for the decline of student radicalism, but I was an art student, for heaven’s sake – all we had to do for three years was draw some pictures, but even we found the wherewithal to march noisily from the Inner London Education Authority to Leicester Square to protest about the amalgamation of four art schools into one amorphous administrative body. And our placards looked pretty.
According to Schlesinger, a vote at City University in London for their NUS representatives in October last year saw a turnout of 2.6%. So, the studes are disengaged from politics. Who isn’t? Some weeks I only read the radio review in the New Statesman. But being a student is more than just chanting things that rhyme with two-four-six-eight and occupying the refectory. It’s about improving your mind, isn’t it? Perhaps by, I don’t know, asking questions.
The problem could be the culture. Young folk have more texting to do than their counterparts at the Sorbonne in 1968, so who can blame them for having reduced social skills and a disinclination to make Molotov cocktails? It seems that students are still active: a recent viral online campaign against HSBC’s plans to drop interest-free overdrafts for postgraduates had the effect of reversing it. But I’m old-skool enough to take a dim view of such armchair activism. Writing stiff letters to the council is something you do when you get older and less mobile, not when you’re 19 and brimming with naïve idealism and spare time.
I’m not sure the footage of the lone, white-shirted student in Tiananmen Square would have been beamed around the world had he started a Facebook page against the government tanks. Any questions?
I dedicate this piece to all the students out there who are currently either off their arses, making some noise, or indeed on their arses, in occupied student buildings. I had it very easy when I went to college, with fees paid, a grant and rent rebate, not to mention subsidised meals on top. Also, we had clear villains. Perhaps Tony Blair wasn’t enough of a baddie, or enough of a human being, to unite anyone. David Cameron and Nick Clegg, it seems, are. Give them a good shouting to, kids, and do your best to avoid being kettled. But careful with that fire extinguisher now!