Student activism is becoming ever more important and relevant. With student-led protests in Hong Kong attracting media attention from around the world, it is evident that the voice of student populations is something that cannot be ignored.
However the question remains as to how valuable student protests are, and the extent to which they can really make a difference. It is true that there is a habit for students to simply jump on the bandwagon, and follow the latest trends; be this in fashion or politics, it means that the collective opinion of students may not be the most reliable source of information.
In addition to this, students are renowned for their tendency to hold radical and ultimately untenable political beliefs. Characters such as Rick in the British sitcom The Young Ones played by the late, great Rik Mayall, with his constant calls for anarchy and “wevolution”, play on a popular and not entirely inaccurate stereotype of student politics. Moreover, it can be argued that many students come to university having never had a real job, or experienced what society is like outside the prism of education. Consequently, this undermines any authority that they have to criticise political decisions which will affect people around the country, with whom students have had no contact or understanding. These arguments however ignore the broader importance of student activism.
Students live in an environment which promotes an inquisitive and questioning approach to the world. Universities provide a basis of education, which allows students to make conscious and intelligent decisions relating to not only their lives but also to the world around them. Surrounded by such a culture of learning and a focus on independent reflection, it is inevitable that students will start to challenge the things in life which they perceive to be immoral or wrong, and it is for this reason that student activism is so widespread and significant. It needs to be recognised that students and young people are the future leaders of the country. They are the next generation to take over in government, thus political involvement should be encouraged on every level.
The key question is, however, whether or not student protests actually make a difference. On a small scale, it is undeniable that they can have a significant effect, in particular within an institution itself. This is an occurrence demonstrated by the overwhelming student support for the protest against the staff pay freeze at The University of Edinburgh last year. On a more national level, student protests have as much effect as any form of protest can. Governments are meant to reflect the will of its people, and student protests are a way holding them accountable.
However, the now infamous student riots in London following the raising of the cap on university tuition fees are a clear example of where student activism went too far. Resulting only in vandalism, violence and a series of arrests, the effect of these protests on the political world was negligible, and they did nothing to counteract the government’s decision. That being said, student activism is a key part of any country’s political discourse. Students are well-educated, articulate and filled with a desire to right the wrongs in the world. Although this ambition and hope for effecting radical change may fade over the years, there are always more driven and energetic young people to fill the void. Politicians, removed from the real world and concealed in historical government buildings need to bare witness passion such as this to remind them what bottom-up politics can achieve.