Following the fallout from recent occupational protests at the University of Birmingham, the air on campus has been thick with talk surrounding the right to protest and the efficacy of this political tool in redressing student grievances. Here, POLSIS students Rachel Armitage (1st Year BA Political Science), Fern Tomlinson (3rd Year B.A. Political Science ) and Alice Key (1st Year BA Political Science) provide an insight into students’ views on the rights and wrongs of protest and what it might achieve.
From an academic perspective, the recent rise in student protests has provided an important empirical case study which contemporary theories of political participation may be applied to. Over the past two decades a broad consensus has emerged among academics that there is both an overall decline in political participation, and a shift from conventional to unconventional methods of engagement. Let down by the Liberal Democrats over the issue of higher education funding, and faced with Conservative defiance over the £9000 fees, students across the country are finding new ways to get their voices heard. This pattern confirms hypotheses that the younger generation are far more likely than their parent’s generation to engage in protest, demonstrations or boycotts instead of waiting for Election Day to express their views.
The increase in unconventional forms of political participation can also be seen as indicative of a homogenisation in party ideology, coupled with a rise in issues that intersect the ideological left-right divide. Very few students, whatever their political orientation, support increased fees, yet they know that as a constituency they are easily ignored. Moreover, with all three main parties now backing the increased fees for the foreseeable future, there is little option for students but to garner media and popular support in an attempt to increase pressure on politicians to rethink their policies.
With this in mind, a recent meeting of the newly formed student Lunar Society served as an excellent forum for debating the right to protest. A consensus was clear amongst members that such a right should be inalienable. However, the effectiveness of its recent employment at the University of Birmingham was called into question. Some students though maintained that student protest has been an effective strategy for challenging what they perceive is a privatisation of the University implemented by managers ‘whose commercial concerns outstrip the ideals of public education and the interests and wellbeing of students’. Despite the effect that student protest has had on raising awareness of the issues one student urged for continued action in order to prevent ‘privatization being pushed through the back door’ and to relay the message that ‘we will not stand for the destruction of public education and the emphasis on profit over students in the Higher Education system’.
Other members of the Society, however, felt that further protests in response to the high court injunction banning ‘all occupation-style protests’ on campus for the next 12 months which has been obtained at the request of Vice Chancellor Eastwood was not necessarily the most effective course of action to take. They argued that such kneejerk protesting was having a negative impact on the majority of the student body who had chosen not to protest, as well as failing to facilitate real change. Further, the question of legitimacy was raised with members noting that the behaviour of a handful of students could not be considered an adequate representation of the student voice, which realistically consists of a wide spectrum of different opinions. Indeed, it was speculated that of the one thousand students who took part in the protest on February 15th, only one third were University of Birmingham students; this subsequently raises the important issue that real active change may not be achievable until the student body shows a united front.
Nevertheless, continued student protests on campus indicates that the motivated few remain determined to overturn the injunction and exercise their right to free speech with many citing the condemning indictment of University behaviour by Amnesty International as a justification for their anger. Indeed, the occupational protests look set to continue until the university lifts its unpopular injunction and recognises the importance of the student voice on its own campus. As one student explained:
“Student protests on campus are extremely important. They demonstrate our energy and determination to fight against injustices within society. The education of every student is being threatened whilst our senior management team walks away with six figure salaries. David Eastwood, our Vice-Chancellor, helped to author the Browne Review, pushed for uncapped fees and sits on an annual salary of £419,000. It is imperative that these managers see our outrage and protests on campus clearly articulate this.”
The issue of student protest and its role in student politics is far from reaching resolution, however, if the lower aim of the protests is to stimulate debate and concern for the protection of our rights as students, who are we to say that they haven’t already succeeded?