Marching against barricades

University students have been at the burning heart of the activism fire for as long as there have been universities. The moral absolutism of the young, with their energy for revolution and minds full of new ideas, has made protest action a common feature of university life across the world.

Modern students find themselves fighting similar fights to generations before them – calling for peace; racial, gender, sexual and religious equality; opposing abuses of power; and supporting environmentalism.

Reading a colourful, perhaps tattered, poster strategically affixed to the inside of a toilet door encouraging you to join a rally in the city centre is a regular occurrence on university campuses. Except, these days, all too often, the rally was in 2017 and no one has replaced the poster or covered it with a more recent one.

Is this a sign that student-led activism is in decline? And, if it is, why?

Before we can answer these questions, we should look into why students are drawn to activism in the first place.

UWA senior lecturer Dr Ethan Blue explains that after the restrictive confines of high school, where permission is required to even hang up a poster, university tends to encourage social inquiry. Students are being enlightened about new things, having the world opened up to them in ways they had not considered before.

He says they are also more likely to notice the disadvantaged groups in society, as they become a part of one: “Young people are historically marginalised, thus other types of marginalisation are more recognisable to you. You have a stronger sense of empathy.”

In conjunction to this heightened empathy, is the financial and situational opportunity young people have to engage in activism. Dr Blues says: “They don’t have a lot of debt obligations, they don’t often have full time jobs, they don’t have mortgages or bosses that will fire them for political activism.”

All of this puts them in the prime position to lead the activism fight.

Study is not the only thing happening at university. Photo: Melissa Sheil.

Alexis Vassiley is a casual academic and former student activist. In 2003, while studying for his undergraduate degree, he saw a group of people on campus hanging up a bright poster in protest against the war in Iraq. A strong opponent of the war too, he approached them, struck up a conversation, found they had many similar political leanings and they became friends.

Vassiley has since founded the Socialist Alternative group, an activist club that now has a branch in almost every Australian capital city. He has attended university campuses as a student and as staff for over a decade and has noticed a change.

“Universities seem to be becoming less and less a place of free speech, social inquiry and contest of ideas,” says Vassiley. A common observation is that the university itself is increasingly censorious with minor roadblocks put in to inconvenience and discourage activism and advocacy.

“Even just to set up a table with some flyers and literature, you have to fill out a million forms, apply and go through both the Guild and the university. They may still reject it without really saying why or put you in a location with minimal traffic,” he explains.

Similar stories are heard at UWA.

Euan Gleeson-Brown is the former president and current treasurer of Amnesty International UWA, a student-run human rights advocacy group. He says that though the Student Guild was highly supportive, the university was sometimes helpful and sometimes acted counter-productively to the club’s work. He said they had had trouble accessing funds allocated to their guild account and the process was even slower if minor mistakes were made.

More importantly, the university was extremely cautious surrounding events run on controversial issues.

“We planned a solidarity event in support of the 2019 Hong Kong student protests. They didn’t support us and made us sign additional event preparation paperwork in case there was opposition (there wasn’t) and made it very clear that this was an issue raised by Amnesty, not the university. Our stance is human rights based, not political,” says Gleeson-Brown.

As they see it, the compassionate actions of these few students attempting to reach out a hand of support to those affected was met by a barrier of paperwork and uncooperativeness by the university in an effort to dissuade ‘political’ action.

Student protest culture is historically and internationally important. Photo: Callum Shaw, Unsplash.

Australian universities are no longer bubbling hubs of protest and social riot, not because students are no longer politically savvy, but due to several external factors that have slowly decreased motives and opportunities for activism.

The first is government efforts to defund and privatise universities. Since 2017, Australian universities have been hit with funding cuts, losing billions of dollars in government funding. The latest $3.9b cut to tertiary education was in late 2019.

Dr Blue thinks these motions may have strategic implications.

“One of the reasons conservative and centred politicians are trying to privatise universities and reduce government funding is because they understand that universities are places where student protests can happen and they are incubators where progressive politics can form,” says Dr Blue.

Vassiley believes that the efforts to roll back some more progressive classes and groups and pushes towards other more profitable ones can be seen.

“If unis are getting private funding from mining companies, there may be pressure to push particular courses and ideas in accordance to that. They’re hardly going to want a bunch of students running around protesting fracking,” says Vassiley.

The second is the increase in student fees and changes in the economic arrangements of study. Increased university fees, reduced financial help and making students fund their own education puts students into debt, a responsibility that depoliticises them. According to the 2017-18 Federal Budget, the average student HECS/HELP debt was almost $20,000. It generally takes 8.8 years to pay off.

Studying at university to help better yourself used to be enough of an economic contribution to society and the government would provide some funds for living expenses. Now, it is expected that young students will have a job – or several – to support themselves. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, three out of five full time tertiary students were employed in at least one job.

The third reason is the change in university culture itself. There has been a shift in the popular motivation for enrolling in tertiary studies from a pursuit of knowledge to increasing personal profitability in the workforce.

Lecturer in the School of Media, Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin, Sky Croeser, says university is no longer considered primarily a place for broadening the mind.

“It has morphed from being a chance to participate in knowledge-creation and active citizenship into it being an investment in yourself, an individual thing to make you more desirable on the job market. It decreases the sense that students should be politically active; they go for class, get on with their study and get out,” says Dr Croeser.

With less time and incentive to be on campus and fewer opportunities to get involved in clubs, more than 13 per cent of students are choosing to study online and may have never set foot on campus for the entirely of their degree.

Those in charge may be consciously making moves for student depoliticisation. Photo: Melissa Sheil.

The demographic of university students has broadened greatly over recent years with a huge increase of mature-aged, international and lower socio-economically classed students. This increased diversity in student populations often means there is a less unified front on certain issues and difficulties rallying together physically, even if there was.

There is a sense that both university students and staff are overwhelmingly, loudly left wing, says Dr Croeser. According to most studies, this is not actually true. University is the place where political beliefs are fostered, be they liberal, conservative or moderate.

In 2019, Federal Minister of Education, Dan Tehran announced there was a free speech crisis on Australian university campuses. “There is a growing sense… that some students are self-censoring out of fear they will be harassed for expressing sincerely held beliefs,” says Tehran.

The lack of space for debate or opportunity for students to advocate their ideas to their peers could be contributing to a decline of informatively-politicised young people.

“Knowledge is political, but the suppression of knowledge is even more political,” says Dr Blue. 

In lieu of physical action on campus, students are more often turning to social media to exercise their revolutionary muscles in an alternative format.

The internet is a useful tool for rallying and serves as a site of protest itself. Hashtags are used to show solidarity and support, whilst also allowing protesters on the front line to be kept up-to-date with information. Crowd-sourced donation platforms such as GoFundMe are used to pledge money to a cause. Online petitions are shared widely across social media platforms, expanding the scope of reach further than a physical piece of paper could.

“Many of these things that look new, have historical roots,” says Dr Croeser. “A GoFundMe is the modern, quicker version of someone standing outside the shops with a donation bucket.”

Vassiley warns young activists to not develop an over-reliance on social media. “A friend of mine had his Facebook organisation page taken down at 4,000 likes for no reason and had no backup. Don’t forget you’re relying on the whim of multi-billion-dollar corporation.”

The new prong of social change is digital. Photo: Melissa Sheil.

Historically, student-led activism has spurred great movement. The 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests for democracy in China. The White Rose Society at the University of Munich resisting Nazi Germany propaganda in 1942. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 in which students led a protest against communist Czechoslovakia, resulting in strikes and demonstrations that toppled the government eleven days later.

The whole year of 1968 was described by the Australian Union of Students as the ‘year of rage’. In Western Australia, students from UWA and Curtin (then known as WAIT) protested against the Vietnam war, censorship and conscription, campaigned for women’s and gay rights and the protection of WA forests in the ’70s and ’80s.

Dr Blue says universities have historically been places of intellectual struggle.

“There didn’t used to be gender studies, Aboriginal studies, African and Asian studies, women’s studies. They entered through protest. It’s ingrained in the system,” he says.

Protests and activism have brought about widespread change. Mass ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests over the death of George Floyd resulted in all four officers responsible being arrested and charged and the disbandment of the Minneapolis police department within less than two weeks.

Dr Blue remembers attending a similar rally as a graduate student at the University of Texas in 1999, protesting the murder of young African immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of police. Fights against injustice help lessen the scale of inequality year by year and young people involved are the seed of change for the future.

These changes indicated that ttudent activism and social work is not a fruitless yell into the abyss. Yet with the larger global issues, it is sometimes hard to see any tangible change from action.

Despite institutional issues such as women’s rights and climate being an easy flag to get behind, it is the local, small-scale actions that can make the most observable differences in the Western Australian community.

In 2019, Amnesty UWA had over 40 volunteers help put together women’s sanitary packs for a local homelessness organisation. Later that year during the Hong-Kong protests, Amnesty events held in solidarity with the protesters and helped some exchange students from Hong Kong who were feeling threatened by the Chinese consulate. The students had reportedly been followed by officials and sent terrorising text messages. A mass supportive event allowed them to feel safe and welcomed.

“Being thanked by these students made us feel as if we had helped this huge issue in a small way,” says Gleeson-Brown.

The best strength youth activism brings to the table is the ability to witness a situation or an injustice and to fight tirelessly, creatively and outspokenly against it. With the power of technology harnessed and the fervour of a righteous cause, all they need is a bit of help.

“Once older groups and students work together, they’re able to combine youthful enthusiasm and strong voice for change with the experience and understanding of how to bring about change to create a very strong combined force,” says Gleeson-Brown.

The rising tide rage over social inequality may overthrow any obstacle. Photo: Melissa Sheil.

Despite these factors dampening youth revolution, some predict change is in the air.

“There’s such a powder keg of issues affecting us that I think it might force a revival of student protest culture,” says Vassiley.

He’s wondering if the combination of a health crisis, mass youth unemployment, rising university fees, racial inequality and growing panic about climate change will result in a perfect storm of riotous anger in young people.