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Are Britain’s Students Apathetic?

Headline politics in France and the UK have been markedly similar this week, with government cuts threatening huge economic implications for the inhabitants of both countries. Yet the response from the young people of these neighbouring nations couldn’t have been more strikingly different.

Whilst French students have risen up in arms, organising mass protests and huge anti-government demonstrations, British youngsters have once again displayed the political apathy for which they are famed in their overall lack of any unified action or effort to respond to the enormous implications of the Browne review.

When France announced its bill to raise the pension age by two years, its politicised and vocal student population rallied and marched, organising mass demonstrations against a policy that won’t even affect them for several decades, by which time it could quite easily have been changed and reformed by other governments. British students on the other hand, were faced with the possible removal of the cap on tuition fees, a policy that would almost immediately have a devastating impact on every new university student, increasing their graduate debt by thousands of pounds. Yet there has been no such national activism or mass protest amongst our young people, no huge demonstrations at Whitehall or marches in London.

So why are British students so reluctant to take a political stand? Are we simply the apathetic product of a sheltered 21st century upbringing, with Facebook and Playstation taking the place of intelligent debate and political awareness? Are we simply too wrapped up in our increasingly self-centred and materialistic modern lives? Or is it the fault of the British politicians, who regularly lament the political apathy and inactivity of our young people but don’t do enough to actively reach out and involve students in modern government and politics?

If you look back to the swinging sixties, the last great age of student protest and political activism in this country, there are striking differences between the sort of youth community and social interaction of that decade and ours. Then there were mass meetings, festivals, dances, gatherings, where young people would actually communicate with one another face to face and a message of protest could be passed on and swell to a roar within a defined and cohesive student community. Today young people communicate online when at all, holing up in their rooms with Ipods and Wiis, DVDs and computer games, presenting a virtual image of themselves, fractured and moderated through the prism-like lenses of MSN, MySpace and Facebook. Far fewer real social connections are made. Far fewer real conversations are to be had. And above all there is far less of a sense of community or togetherness in the overwhelming isolation of the virtual void.

A recent study by the Prince’s Trust showed that one in ten young people feel like an “outcast” in their community, whilst a staggering 22% feel isolated “most of the time”. It seems highly likely that this sense of disconnection fostered by our nation’s young people could have a great deal to do with our lack of a sense of a student community or a political presence. With 68% confessing to rarely or never speaking to their elders, and almost half expressing the opinion that older people are “afraid” of youngsters, you wonder whether the problem is not one of apathy at all, but a failure to believe that anybody would listen to them anyway.

  • Rui Costa

    I think this article is right: students aren’t interested in the big issues of the day anymore.

    Too few students at my “alma mater” even really care about the Browne Review. I mean, hello?! The Browne Review is about students. It actually affects students. It means students are gonna be poorer.

    But the student paper at the old alma mater won’t even cover the topic in any meaningful way, let alone encourage people to go and march against the rise in fees.

    It’s ridiculous. Students now just want to go on websites like Fitter, and TwitFace, or whatever they’re called. In my day, we didn’t have either of those things. And that was only about 8 years ago…

  • Charissa Edgebaston

    I couldn’t agree more. I tried to start a student march at my uni but had to cancel it because there was a lack of interest and support.

    How are we supposed to prevent the government landing us with these completely outrageous and untenable levels of debt if people can’t even be bothered to get up and give them a hard time about it.

    No wonder they think they can push young people around and saddle us with the burden of the country’s debt- they probably think we’re all so busy watching the x factor we won’t even notice!

  • Hayley Shaw

    I don’t know that it’s fair to say students are totally apathetic – if you are at uni now it is difficult to find the time to go out protesting and organising rallies- we’re going to need to do pretty well in our degrees if we’re going to get good enough jobs to pay off all that debt!

    Also the NUS are doing a pretty good job of lobbying and raising awareness and they represent the student body at national level.

    I do think it’s true though that if anything the major reason for a lack of political engagement or activism amongst British youth and students is that we know the government isn’t going to listen to us anyway – so what’s the point? When in the past has a major policy decision like this that’s going to help the government with its financial problems really been influenced by a bunch of protesting students? They just don’t listen.

    They spent all the pre-election period courting us for our votes, trying to politicise us, but they certainly don’t want to hear our views now. And what on earth happened to those lib dem pledges I heard and saw signed before I gave them my vote? I won’t be so trusting again.

  • Elly (Post author)

    Thanks for all your comments. Hayley, I absolutely agree, it is very hard for students to be expected to manage to juggle their degrees and political action at the same time!

    So great respect to the students of Oxford unversity who recently managed to stage a rally agains tuition fee increases, planned to coincide with a visit by Vince Cable who subsequently pulled out.

    Some have portrayed this as a cowardly failure on Cable’s part to face up to those to whom he made pre-election promises, whilst others have defended his decision to take police advice not to attend.

    What do you think?

  • Rafael Bale

    I’m not sure. I don’t think they’re necessarily apathetic, I just think they don’t quite know how to vent their anger. It’s all very well organising a march, but when 1 million people can march through London to stop a war and all get ignored, where else is there to go? Perhaps apathy is the wrong word, it’s more like they’re despondent and resigned to the fact that those in power will get their way. The only thing we can do it vote them out, but that’s years away.

  • marie

    Oops think the author might have spoken too soon.

  • Elly (post author)

    I absoultely did!! Thank goodness British students are finally taking to the streets to stand up for themselves and hold the Lib dems to their pre-election promises- I’m thrilled to see that they are!

  • George Baker

    Yes Elly I absolutely agree with you and I should also like to commend the chairman of the NUS who calmly and very articulately defended and explained the students actions on national news when the press were clouding the issue by focussing on the violence of a few instead of really getting to grips with the real issues.

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