The death of student activism

22 May 2014

4:00 PM

22 May 2014

4:00 PM

Oxford students heard this morning that, after a three-day referendum, our student union, OUSU, will be disaffiliating from the National Union of Students.

I voted to break with the NUS, and I felt confident doing so: Oxford’s membership currently costs us over £25,000 a year, and, aside from the dubious satisfaction of knowing that Nick Clegg will never be short of misspelt placards to stare at, no one has a clue what we get in return.

The most notable thing about the referendum was how little people cared. The turnout was just 15 per cent, despite voting taking place online. And this wasn’t an isolated example of lack of engagement with student politics – giving a good indication of how low expectations have become, Nathan Akehurst, NUS fan and former OUSU presidential candidate, told Cherwell this morning that he was delighted with the “incredibly high turnout”.


It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but my generation is witnessing the death of student activism. When my dad was an undergraduate, students were protesting against the Vietnam War and racial intolerance in their thousands, and everyone knew that Jack Straw was NUS President. When my mum was at Oxford in the 1980s, people wore badges saying things like ‘Why assume I’m heterosexual?’.

Those days are gone. Today’s students are far more concerned by exams, tuition fees and unpaid internships. Whereas once the hallmark of student protest was attaching oneself to controversial and abstract moral crusades, my generation only gets het-up about things affecting our own employability and financial security. (Youth unemployment for the last quarter was 19 per cent, and most of us will be arriving on hostile jobs and housing markets £27,000 in debt.)

Previous generations of students were the driving force behind nearly every radical campaign of their time, but my peers are too busy thinking about our CVs and our bank-balances. It’s easy to imagine the issues that we might get involved with – Syria, Libya, Iraq, climate change, fracking – but none of them have seen significant organised student involvement.

My cohort of students is the most sensible ever. We drink less, smoke less and take fewer drugs than our parents did, and we protest not at all.

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Show comments
  • Terry Field

    The NUS was and is mediocre.
    A foolish absurdity.

  • andagain

    Previous generations of students were the driving force behind nearly every radical campaign of their time

    Were they? Or did they just provide the footsoldiers?

  • LucieCabrol

    When I was a student in the 80’s there was no socialist club at my university, a situation I was quite happy about.

  • LucieCabrol

    Sounds like the student loan exercise has been a resounding success then.

    • Terry Field

      Ah, a valedictory sigh for the dreamlike years.
      Or something.

  • anyfool

    The current students will be looking at the damage the likes of your parents have done to this country, then thought why bother, there is nothing decent left to destroy.

    • Terry Field

      Yes, my generation was responsible for utter catastrophe. From the greatest civilisation on Earth to nauseating, toe-curling mediocrity in 75 years.

      EVERYTHING our lot did was wrong.

      My apologies.

  • wycombewanderer

    1 in 5 graduates will become millionaires, maybe they’ve got better things to do than wave placards and wear wrist bands!

    • Terry Field

      A millionaire owns a garret in Penge these days.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Oh dear, Carola, must I be the one to break it to you that you can’t believe everything your parents tell you? When I was a student in the 70s we leftie activists were a vanishingly small minority. The Tories used to be able to stop Students’ Union meetings in their tracks by calling “quorum”.

    • Terry Field

      Not what I recall – the militant scum were the force.
      And do you recall the nauseatingly dreadful Jack Straw as was.

      • Mr Grumpy

        Well, my uni was full of gentleman farmers, so I’m probably guilty of over-generalization. But I think also the Seventies saw a big swing away from radicalism.
        Straw and his like were always despised as careerists by the real lefties. So we were right about at least one thing.

  • stewart

    May I ask ,Ms Binney, what do your parents do now?

  • Kitty MLB

    A question, was it always Leftie students who protested.
    Maybe it just seems that way.

  • windsock

    “we protest not at all”

    Is that really something to be proud of?

    • Terry Field

      It does not really make much difference either way – global warming will see us off, irrespective of any complaints we may make.