Opinion | The decline of student activism is understandable. But we should not forget the power of ‘in-person’ protests


Daisy Nash, History MA, Postgraduate

In recent years, movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the youth climate movement have led to what the Guardian calls the ‘Resurgence of student activism’. But are students nowadays actually more politically and socially active than in previous generations?

Susan, a student at Warwick in the early 1980s, does not seem to think so. As a relatively new university, Warwick was arguably more liberal than its peers. But the atmosphere on campus – a ‘Hub’ of social and political activism – was not unique.

Susan’s most vibrant memory of student participation – a march in favour of overseas students – stood out precisely because of the ‘Thousands’ of young people that accompanied them in London.

She points to a developing dialogue on racism and sexism that ratified a sense of dynamism, as the campus became a mediator for social change in Britain.

This emphasis on ‘face-to-face’ debate differs from activist behaviour in the 21st century. Although similar behaviour appears nowadays – in the aftermath of the Sarah Everard case, for example – ‘in-person’ protesting of this kind was much more widespread in Susan’s era.

It is much easier to like a post advertising a #MeToo march than to follow-through with attendance

This decline is further evidenced by ‘Slactivism’, the term academics use to describe the ‘Easier’ process of raising awareness that social media has engineered. The Protect Warwick Women sit-in at the University of Warwick in March 2021 is testament to this, as their protest against sexual violence garnered an online following of almost 5000, contrasted with a reported attendance of under 300.

This changing pattern of student activism has both social and psychological causes.

Firstly, we are living in an increasingly online world. Instagram and Facebook, while both crucial platforms for university societies, contribute to the demise of face-to-face interaction.

It is much easier to like a post advertising a #MeToo march than to follow-through with attendance (you’re still aware aren’t you?!).

For one MA student, the decrease in campus activism is a direct cause of the political and legal landscape in Britain.

Her take centred on a feeling of powerlessness, deriving from a sense of apathy among those who supposedly hold the key to change.

International concerns are unfortunately eclipsed by the immediacy of our own uncertainty

This powerlessness has only been enhanced by the recent developments in the Police Bill, prompting mass ‘Kill the Bill’ protests around the country – one of which she attended. By expanding the punitive consequences of public protest, coupled with the regulations set during the pandemic, young people are feeling an overwhelming sense of being ‘Vilified’.

You only have to search ‘BLM Covid’ to understand the amount of scrutiny that surrounds social activism at this current time.

As if the fear of legal action wasn’t enough, student’s own uncertainty surrounding their future is another deterrent to campus activists. When compared to past university experience, higher education is no longer (questionably) for the entitled few. Parents talk of the confidence that came from being in a unique position; a career guarantee that students today just cannot envision.

Carola Binney’s, author of an article entitled ‘The death of student activism’ sees today’s students as too caught up by ‘Employability and financial security’ to expand their scope for activism. Our energy is already focused on internal issues: tuition fees, strikes, and chancellor corruption!

International concerns are unfortunately eclipsed by the immediacy of our own uncertainty; a selfishness resulting from an increasingly competitive environment.

Of course, this does not take away from the litany of movements and protests that have dominated British campuses in recent years. The fate of Kathleen Stock demonstrates the power of the student voice, after accusations of transphobia contributed to her resignation from the University of Sussex in 2021.

Her submission implies that the conversation around equality has not receded but only strengthened.

Yet, such examples include only a small minority of the university intake. With over 20,000 students at many of these institutions, can we really equate a march of 500 (for example) with the ‘Resurgence of student activism’?

Previous generations marched more miles and waved more flags, but they had the luxury to do so

There is no doubt that students are fiercely aware of Britain’s political developments – Instagram stories are evidence of this variegated discourse– but we must realise that this is not the same as participation on campus.

Previous generations marched more miles and waved more flags, but they had the luxury to do so. The decline in campus activism does not result from apathy, but from the legal, social and economic insecurities of the last few years.

As we leave COVID behind us (touch wood), students should not forget the power of ‘in person’ protests. Technological and political developments may have reduced the impetus for physical action, but they have also brought a new angle of accountability which, if pursued, could reemphasise the significance of activism on campus.

Featured image: Unsplash | Lin An-Lim

Do you think online activism is as effective as 'in person' protests? How should we encourage more activism on campus? Let us know @EpigramOpinion !