When do we want it? Like, whenever

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!

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15 thoughts on “When do we want it? Like, whenever

  1. Why did you stop doing the word column? darn didly, that was one of my things I (studentishly) steal my dads Word magazine every month when I can…hope this leads onto bigger and greater things Colings…

  2. Not having seen the new issue yet, I understand they have redesigned the front section, and my column didn’t fit with the new layout. Also, they felt that four years was long enough. And they have promised me plenty of other writing work to make up for it. (In the new issue, I have written a “think piece” about Rupert Murdoch which is exactly the kind of thing I would have written for a column, except it’s no longer a column. I’ve also written a two-page piece on Stephen Fry and Jon Stewart, which I’m very proud of.) I am sad they have stopped my column, though, and didn’t see that coming.

    • Boom. You’ve written about 3 things I’m definayely going to rob my dads Word to read. I would buy my own copy if I wasn’t unemployed. Sorry to hear they stopped the column, I hope they reconsider.

  3. I’m sympathetic to the cause but I don’t think they’re doing themselves any favours here. I’m not sure that the plight of a load of middle class RP-accented Tobys and Charlies appearing on BBC news saying how oppressed they are plays that well with those struggling on benefits who couldn’t give a shit about a load of prima donna students pretending it’s 1968.

    And when they’re seen destroying property and grafitti-ing Trafalgar Square then people have even less sympathy for them.

    At least we might get some decent music being made at last though.

  4. I worked for the University of Northampton for a short time but left after taking too many phone calls from prospective students asking which tube line Northampton was on

  5. I do feel sorry for anyone between 18 and 22 at the moment. If you want to go to Uni you are going to be indebted up to the eyeballs no dount about it. If you want to go and get a job you have little or no experience and are having to scrabble about with thousands pf other more qualified candidates then you.

    Why is it that the bulk of the population is being punished for the financial folly of the few?

  6. Many students helped to elect Lib Dem MPs (which to my way of thinking only goes to show how ill-educated they are, but that’s by the by). If the Lib Dems had simply agreed to work with the Tories but retained their oft-vaunted principles, they wouldn’t be facing the backlash they are now. But instead of simply facilitating Tory cuts and the VAT increase, they’ve adopted these as their own policies. Clegg is left looking like the Tory some of us always knew he was. The claim of this Arse and Elbow government to any kind of mandate is tenuous enough – the Tories’ manifesto was empty after all. But the switches in policy the Lib Dems have made since the election (and the ones Clegg apparently made just before the election but didn’t tell anyone about) are so great that the votes they garnered simply cannot count towards that mandate. Of course anyone who voted Lib Dem should be pissed off. We all should. Britain’s fuckwitted savers got us into this mess and somehow they’ve managed to wrangle a government that will make anyone but them pay for the bail out of their bank accounts. It’s a shame that it takes a hit on students’ own pockets to get them out (or in). But they’ve been betrayed and their anger is justified. The grinning twats fronting this government can’t mask its aggression, its vandalism, or its disregard for democracy. They deserve a shitstorm of the same in return.

  7. I usually get students coming up to me privately and asking questions. The public thing hasn’t worked for a long while. I guess they always think they can email a question too, these days.

    It’s good to see the protests. I suppose you could argue that they should have been protesting for years – the degradation of student funding didn’t begin with this present government after all. Perhaps it took the sense of betrayal that the Libdems have provided to get folks out on the street.

    And the only social class issue is the overcoming of social class. If it’s a ‘middle class revolt’ then it’s one to end all middle class revolts.

  8. I think the Anti-War marches were a turning point away from politics for the youth. I seemed to be in Australia, if so many people in so many democratic countries were against something but the governments still went ahead, there was a feeling of “Why bother?”, “We’re not going to change a thing.”

  9. I don’t think comparing this current student cohort with previous ones is necessarily fair because you’re comparing apples with oranges. The demographic of students has changed considerably over the last 20 years, and is certainly very very different to that of the May ’68ers in Paris.

    Back when only a very small minority kids, mainly (though not exclusively) middle class, went to university it was much easier to guarantee a good job at the end of it all. You could afford to spend a bit more time protesting about perhaps more abstract things, and could probably afford to get yourself into a little bit more bother with the authorities whilst you were at it. All would be forgotten on graduation, put down to healthy youthful exuberance and idealism. Of course, the networking and connections you have

    Today things are very different. Student numbers have grown significantly as has the mix of students. This is a good thing, and there’s plenty of evidence out there that shows we do need more graduates (and please people – no moaning about “Micky Mouse” degrees – I’ve heard it all before and it’s generally wrong!). However, with the increased cost, increased numbers and therefore more competition for the “top” jobs students are now seeing university in a more utilitarian way, particularly as they’re paying for it now. Some might see this as a bad thing but it’s just the way things are. I personally think the opening up of higher education to more people is a good thing.

    All of this means that students have to focus more on their work, have to spend more time doing things that will differentiate their CVs to other (good things, like volunteering, student media etc.) and also spend more time working part time. Less time is left for general protest, though what the current protest shows is that students will get out there and cause a fuss when pushed into it.

    You might think that the protests are perhaps more selfish given they’re focussed on issues that directly affect then, but again, remember that with not far from 50% of young people going to university what we’re actually talking about is something that will affect a very significant proportion of the population and not a purely middle class one.

    However, what I do hope is that some of those protesting will join this up with the wider cuts programme and show more opposition to that too.

  10. Bugger. Way too many typos in the above. That’s what you get when you don’t proof read!

    Incidentally, I was actually editing a student newspaper in 2001 that won the Independent Student Media Award for best student campaign for organising the first student protest at my university in 30 years!

  11. Back in the late 90’s I was a student at Manchester University. With the ever decreasing student grants, ever increasing student loans and the introduction of tuition fees, I could see the way higher education funding was going. I got involved in student politics, joined the campaign for free education, was elected to my student union council, went to the NUS conference. I fought long and hard, arguing for free education. In the end it was a massive piss into the wind.
    The NUS (Nation Union of Students) were loyal labour supports, so had changed there policy to support student loans. They saw anyone who disagreed with them as annoying anarchists. Worst of all were the 99.9% of normal students, who took no interest in any type of politics. They saw the political fight as a massive waste of time. They were purely self interested, if you’re short of cash you don’t protest to the government, just phone your mum. I concluded they were Thatcher generation.
    At the end of the last season of peep show there a beautiful witty line that summaries this far better than I could.
    “No Jez, the absolute worst thing anyone could say about you is that you were a selfish moral blank, whose lazy cynisism and sneering ironic take on the world encapsulates everything wrong with a generation”
    All the best to this new generation, take on the powers that be, occupy the halls. Viva la’ revolution.

  12. The current protests are in a direct continuum of ours against loans in the mid-80s. Lest we forget, our generation was no more idealist than today’s. We were standing up against the retraction of state financial support for students, ultimately in vain but the principle of fighting against enforced poverty remained. The students today are proving that the Tories cannot, once again, be allowed to trample over the financial future of a generation. The difference from the past is that the betrayal of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees has stoked the flames far higher than in our time.

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