As this month sees the student demonstrations of November 9 and the impending trade union strikes of November 30, as well as the continuing international Occupy movement, Activism 2011 was rife with passionate discussion and a momentum of possibility for change.
The NUS hosted the UK’s biggest student conference on November 17 at Goldsmiths College. The free event combined interactive workshops, roundtable discussions, lectures and film screenings for a day that was as jam-packed as it was radicalising.
Workshops provided the opportunity for like-minded students from across the UK to discuss the contentious issues affecting young people, from education to the environment, public service cuts to poverty, and from local community to global justice.
A popular theme of the event was the use of social media to affect change, plan direct action, and increase dialogue between campaign groups. The session, Social Media in Campaigning, hosted by NUS web officer, Dan Higgins, explored the potential of Twitter to build and maintain student campaigns. The idea was reinforced by a long discussion of the UCL Occupation of December 2010 against tuitions fees and university cuts, where Twitter played a vital role.
The Real Social Network, a film made by UCL students, decisively announced to the conference “protest has changed”. The film follows a group of students in London from December to March 2011 as they occupied universities, shut down banks and hacked software on the way to building the student movement. One that has sent ripples around the world in the past 12 months.
UK Youth Climate Coalition was also central to the “unite and fight” sentiment of the occasion. The session promised to “inspire, empower, mobilise, unite”. They discussed intergenerational justice, empowering young people, and more specifically, planning exactly how young people can increase the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change.
Similarly, the direct action group, Plane Stupid, hosted a session looking at the role of “cheeky, creative, and confrontational actions in campaigning for social change” – from super-gluing yourself to the Prime Minister to teaming up with local residents against airport expansion. The group, who are also involved with the Grow Heathrow project, set the tone for energetic passion as key to bringing about government change.
Emily James’ film, Just Do It, followed environmental action groups campaigning at the Copenhagen Climate Conference and used humour to persuade the young, impressionable student audience that direct action – whether it ends in jail sentences or not – is the only way forward.
Though characterised by a somewhat cheeky youthfulness, the tone underpinning the entire day’s events was undoubtedly the gearing-up toward the November 30 day of action. The demonstration is expected to see full strikes across the public sector, in the capital and across the UK.
NUS campaigner, Jim Dickinson, led what was perhaps the most insightful session of the day, understanding political apathy and defeating it.
The interactive workshop, which examined the latest research on political apathy, identified the top 10 measures that organisations use to actively generate apathy. Fuming with political angst, Dickinson’s enraptured audience griped at the indifference of “everybody else”. “Don’t these people care?” someone asked.
The event was a resounding success, with almost 1000 students attending. This is a welcome change for student activists across the country, for whom the NUS has long been characterised for its inability to get fully behind the student movement. In November 2010, former NUS president Aaron Porter, publicly apologised for his “spineless” lack of public support for university occupations across the country.
“For too long, the NUS has perhaps been too cautious and too spineless about being committed to supporting student activism… I just want to apologise for my dithering in the last few days”, Porter said.
At the same time, the NUS also agreed to support a list of demands made by the UCL occupation, including the promise to “publicly support all student occupations on the front page of the NUS and all available media.”
Praising the event, Jessica Riches, 21, ‘Twitter-Queen’ of the UCL occupation, told EastLondonLines: “I think its really important for students who don’t have campaigning communities in their universities, to have events like these where they can come and discuss issues affecting them, and have conversations, and network.”
Heralding a conference about activism does not actually go a long way towards changing the perception of the NUS as all talk, and little action, but it is definitely a start.