Student activism is being sabotaged and this is why it matters

Politicians and the police are attempting to depoliticize student unions and repress student activism. To strengthen the struggle against this, we need to know about it.

Students have been at the forefront of social and political change throughout modern history. From supporting the anti-apartheid struggle, to standing against racism and against the Vietnam War, student participation has become more crucial than ever for any progressive movement. We see this in today’s movement for Palestine, as students at numerous universities lead campaigns for the boycott of and divestment from Israel.

In South Africa, June 16 is Youth Day. The day commemorates the Soweto Uprising during Apartheid in 1976, where students took the lead in protesting against the Afrikaans Medium Decree. The decree required black schools to use Afrikaans as the medium of instruction from the final year of primary school until graduation – another discriminatory policy intended to undermine the identity of black South Africans through suppressing their indigenous language.

Alongside protests in South Africa, British student actions in relation to Apartheid and during the Vietnam War influenced public opinion, and exerted pressure on the UK government to change its policy. The 18-year student campaign against Barclays, for example, eventually succeeded in persuading the bank to stop engaging with Apartheid South Africa. In 1980, succumbing to pressure, Camden Council withdrew its funds from Barclays. One year later, the Labour Party listened to student demands and called upon all labour-controlled councils to close their accounts. In 1986, 15 local councils boycotted Barclays. The campaign did not stop until Barclays divested completely from the Apartheid regime in March 1987.

It was students’ consciousness of their duty towards humanity, towards their fellow oppressed students in South Africa, that made a meaningful contribution towards social change. As Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”. The students who were dedicated to the Barclays campaign were truly committed to respecting and enhancing the freedom of the tyrannized. They consciously upheld human worth and dignity.

Today, however, politicians and the police are deliberately attempting to depoliticise student unions and repress student activism.

Research conducted by the Institute of Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath showed that political campaigns run by student activists are not only targeted by the police but also by corporate security intelligence. Deplorable tactics have been employed, such as group infiltrations, data gathering and campaign manipulation.

This repression was starkly displayed after the infamous 2010 increase in university tuition fees to £9,000 a year, provoking an angry crowd to storm the Conservative Party HQ at Westminster. While cuts to university funding may have been the immediate catalyst for action, the protesters’ reasons were complex. Student mobilisation was a mass rejection of the government’s higher education agenda in its entirety, from privatisation of university facilities to poor wages and staff redundancies. It was an act of honesty and genuine concern in the face of policy that was gambling with the education system.

The upsurge in 2010 took the police by surprise but in the following years incidents of violent repression became common. Mass arrests, kettling and other disproportionate tactics deterred many students from exercising proactive citizenship in bettering student activism on and off campus.

2013 saw some important campus-based actions, such as occupations and sit-ins at the University of Sussex and the University of London, for example. As Areeb Ullah, education vice president at King’s College London students’ union, explains: “The purpose of the Senate House occupation was to protest against the closure of the University of London Union and the selling off of the student loans to private companies.”

Witnesses reported police violence in bringing an end to the Senate House occupation. Additionally, management at the University of Sussex suspended and excluded five students from campus for taking action against campus facilities privatisation and for standing in solidarity with striking staff across the country.

The incident that struck me most was the blunt attempt of Cambridgeshire police to recruit a young activist to become a paid informant for spying on student activists. Video footage of the incident was captured by the activist and uploaded onto the internet. The officer was recorded asking the activist to target “student-union type stuff” for the purposes of security intelligence. In the video, the officer goes on to explain that such targets may be anti-fascist and environmentalist groups as well as campaigns concerned with government cuts and accountability for tax avoidance.

One of the key findings of the IPR research states: “Undermining campaigners is essentially undermining democracy. The examples of corporate spying and strategising in Secret Manoeuvres raise concerns about the ‘engineering of consent.’… Deliberative democracy requires the participation of civil society, but if activists and campaigns are sabotaged then the terms on which political and policy decisions are made is called into question.”

The initial, most important step towards combating the sabotage of student activism is awareness as to the stakes threatened by such attempts. Raising consciousness could strengthen the struggle against depolicisation, and rescue student activism.

Firstly, when students are targeted with the aim of inhibiting their political and social influence then democracy and liberty are both at risk. This is not only due to the active role of students in shaping social and political change but also because if one group of the community was successfully targeted there is no reason why another group will not be targeted in the same manner.

Secondly, universities by their very nature are hubs of knowledge and enlightenment. Any hindering of the practical application of such awareness and knowledge is in its very best a form of doublethink and in its worst a betrayal of education. Students attend university to broaden their perspectives, to think differently and critically and to contribute to the advancement of society by transforming theoretical knowledge into practice. If governments publically claim that this is the aim of universities but then seek to limit their influence, then the very purpose of an educational establishment is defeated.

Thirdly, the atomization of society is a manifestation of “divide and conquer”. When governments misguide individuals over the core issues threatening society, we become self-interested, working solely in pursuit of egocentric motives and giving the powerful carte blanche in relation to public affairs. Different groups must continue to form coalitions and strong solidarity networks to strengthen the current of political and social influence.

Another broad step is to look at forms of practical solidarity and action on the ground. Such actions may include discussing matters in public forums, mass protests, picketing and leafleting to influence public opinion, lobbying with MPs to exert pressure on government policies, and forming coalitions with interested groups.

All these actions require consciousness, self-awareness, and change of personal perceptions, all leading to a belief in our ability to actually make a change. The belief in our own power to make meaningful contributions and to channel this energy positively is a critical factor in materialising our aspirations. When we aspire for justice, we must hold the firm belief that we can make justice possible.

Politicization is a necessary component of citizenship – to protest is to exercise citizenship. The continued campaign to depoliticise students and hamper student activism, eventually leading to the impediment of the momentum of our youth, is a great loss not only to students but the good of society as a whole.

About the author

Juman Asmail is a Palestinian student activist. She is the co-founder of Southampton Students for Palestine and is interested in anti-colonial movements and the universal struggle for justice.

This article was written by Juman Asmail and was originally published on  It is republished under a Creative Commons license. Home page photo by Ben Windsor/ Flickr Commons.


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