The recent surge in student protests provoked by the government decision to raise university tuition fees in England to £9000 has been hailed as the long-awaited return of British youth from political apathy and disinterest. Quick to point out the long hiatus since the last large scale student demonstrations of the 1960s, commentators and journalists have alternately praised the new wave of politicised youth and condemned them as ignorant yobs spoiling for a fight.
Whether they are to be praised or condemned, it must be acknowledged that a new form of activism has been born; a confident, entitled movement spurred on by an indignant sense of political betrayal and outrage after the Liberal Democrat party’s abandonment of their pre-election pledges on tuition fees. This is a grassroots movement; the politicisation of the Facebook generation. Suddenly protests, sit-ins, marches can be organised at the click of a button, outrage can be spread like wildfire online, Twitter, MySpace and Facebook provide a network for organisation and communication that is as fast as lightning and subversively inaccessible to the older generation.
Yet this new generation of political protesters are under threat, from one of the oldest problems to dog any political group. Division between moderates and radicals threatens to split the unified front of student protest into smaller, less effective factions that would be much more easily dismissed and countered than the strength of their entire force. This problem has threatened smaller groups as well as the protest as a whole, with students holding occupations and sit-ins at indiviual universities in December struggling with decisions about which local groups and unions to jointly campaign with. On the one hand, activist allies raise the profile of a cause, and create a sense of strength in numbers; on the other, student protesters quickly learned the dangers and pitfalls of associating yourself with a cause which may have a slightly different agenda from your own.
Aaron Porter and the National Union of Students
National Union of Students President Aaron Porter has angered the more staunch activists of the student movement by taking what he describes as a practical stance on the current political situation.
Arguing that there is little more to be done in the immediate future to counter the government decision to raise tuition fees (since the vote has been passed in both parliamentary houses), Porter believes it is time for the movement to shift its focus instead to universities. He believes that the rise in fees is inevitable, but the rate at which they will be set remains up for grabs. Why not then, whilst still maintaining a “principled opposition” to fees, accept the fact that the deed has been done and make the best of a bad situation by putting pressure on individual universities not to raise their own fees beyond the minimum possible rate.
Porter argues, quite plausibly, that continuing to protest against a policy that has already been passed is a fruitless campaign of principle that will do little in reality to help future students, as the likelihood of the policy being revoked is extremely small. He therefore urges students and protesters to focus on the area in which they may actually create a real financial difference for the education of future generations; by lobbying universities to think carefully about access to education for the least privileged as they decide what price tags to put on their various degrees.
Mike Chessum and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts
The more strident members of the student movement have flocked to the newly formed, more radical “National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts”, led by the vociferous Mike Chessum. He describes Porter’s concessions to parliamentary impenetrability as an “outrageous…attitude of capitulation”, and plans to lead three fresh demonstrations this month against tuition fees and the axing of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
It is easy to see from the multitude of angry comments on Patrick Kingsley’s recent Guardian article on the topic that a very great number of students and protesters agree with Chessum, seeing Porter as a “dithering” and ineffectual leader who cannot deliver the forceful activism required to make their views heard in Parliament. But one cannot help but wonder where the greatest sense lies – with Porter’s shrewd plan to concentrate his full force where it is likely to make the most material difference or Chessum’s more ostentatious desire to force those in power to listen up.
Two things are for certain; that the student movement risks losing its credibility if it values kicking and screaming above considered political campaigns, and that a division in the ranks can only possibly diminish its chances of making a real impact. It begins to appear possible that the polarised media response towards the student protest may not be a result of divided commentators after all, but a reaction to two very different types of activist…