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Student protest: vibrant and alive in 2018

By Lucy Pegg

Thursday 8 March 2018 Student Journalists

Students and protest often seem synonymous. From the Parisian barricades of the 1968 French riots to the British tuition fee demonstrations in 2010, students have never been ones to keep quiet when they’re angry. And though the establishment may like to brand the young as apathetic, recent years have proven this tradition of political activism lives on. Students have again and again stood up for their rights, beliefs and futures.

 

If you attend one of the sixty-four universities at which staff from the University and College Union (UCU) are striking, there’s a good chance you or your peers are engaged in acts of protest right now. Many students are standing in solidarity with their lecturers, who are challenging proposed changes to their pension schemes which could see their future pension payouts dramatically cut. Some students are simply not attending their lecturers – others are engaged in direct action. At UCL, Sussex, Southampton, Liverpool, Reading, Bristol, Bath, Leicester and Exeter, students have occupied university buildings in the hope of pressuring senior university management to publicly support the UCU strikes and put pressure on Universities UK to reach a deal with the union. Countless campuses have also seen students supporting staff on picket lines, organising local marches, or organising “teach outs” on issues which surround UCU pensions. To put even more pressure on universities, some students are demanding compensation from their universities for the contact hours they’ve missed due to the industrial action, with over 70,000 having signed petitions sent to a number of institutions. Currently only King’s College London have implied they may offer reimbursements to students, but around thirty institutions have now called for a rethink of the pension changes.

The UCU strikes may be at the centre of student politics now, but high rent prices for poor accommodation are also a hot topic of student activism. Unaffordable rent in many cities is a problem to which rent strikes seem increasingly to be an effective solution; from King’s College London to Liverpool, rent strikes – or even just the threat of a rent strike – is proving to be a winning tactic, far more than marches or petitions. Three years of action at UCL resulted in pledges from the university amounting to £1.5 million of bursaries and rent cuts, whilst just four days of rent striking at Sussex resulted in £64,000 of compensation for poor quality of housing. ‘Cut the Rent’ campaign groups now exist at campuses across the country, calling for universities to provide accessible rent prices and safe living conditions for their students. The mouldy, possibly pest-infested student house may be a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be your everyday life.

Whilst student debt remains sky high, calls for free education will of course continue to issue from universities. Though recent protests haven’t quite reached the magnitude of the 2010 demonstrations against the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, students are still calling for free education to be funded through taxing the rich. Following the tuition fee cap rising to £9,250, thousands once again took to the streets of London to call for universal living grants and the abolishment of tuition fees. In fact, with Jeremy Corbyn – a free education supporter - a potential Prime Minister of the future, perhaps eight years of protest could soon be vindicated with a success for the #FreeEd movement.

Student protest isn’t just confined to campus politics or purely “student” issues though. The Fossil Free movement, which campaigns for institutions and corporations to divest their financial assets from fossil fuel companies, has found huge support on university campuses. Sixty-one universities are now committed to divestment, a landmark achieved through creative grassroots protest; whether its Cardiff students chalking slogans outside their school’s main entrance this week or UCL activists staging a Halloween die-in, students have kept up pressure upon university executives in order to protect our ailing planet. Following news of an epidemic at UK universities, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, students have used protest to raise awareness and demand action on sexual assault too. Kent students have launched ‘We’ve Had Enough’, challenging the students’ union and university to better protect students from sexual assault, whilst the Feminist Society at Roehampton has hung underwear emblazoned with quotes from rape survivors across campus in a bid for better resources for victims.

The plethora of student actions taking place across the UK proves that if you’ve got an issue you’re angry about its worth starting a campaign. Whether you keep it low key with petitions and letter writing, or get avant-garde with a creative piece of protest art, its clear the traditional student appetite for protest is still vibrant, bold, and effective.