This article is more than 3 years old

Getting comfortable with direct action

This article is more than 3 years old

Sean Porter is Academic Developer (Transformative Education) at the University of Exeter.

A new cohort of students inspired by the success of BLM will be arriving on our campuses in the coming months.

Young people are having a moment with direct action and will be asking a lot more from their SUs when it comes to campaign work. So how can we address the energy in a way that is helpful?

The “right” way

For a long time activists in Bristol had been grappling with the local council over the statue of Edward Colston. For over two years, the council could not agree on appropriate wording for a plaque designed to highlight Colston’s role as a slave trader.

A long and drawn out procedural process produced a plaque that failed to make any proper reference to the role of slavery in producing Colston’s wealth; indeed, it was eventually reasoned that explicitly mentioning those who were enslaved by Colston was too controversial to feature on a plaque.

Skip forward to the summer of 2020: Black Lives Matter activists seize the moment and chuck Colston into the river (at a time when removing the statue was “No longer a priority’” for the council). Since then, a host of councils have been quick to remove the racist artefacts that occupy their public spaces.

So far, action by councils has been mostly quick, decisive and without hesitation to the BLM cause. It is hard to believe “following the proper channels” would have achieved anything close to the swift response we see before us now.

This story – of trying and failing to create change via the “official channels” – is a familiar one to many students when dealing with their universities. Even the most modest calls for reform can end up buried in an email chain and relegated to the lowest possible priority. Idealism is first channelled into pragmatism, which is then all too often beaten into apathy.

Phrases like ‘change management’ are bandied around when we talk about the barriers and loopholes students must overcome and jump through to change policy. This is often portrayed as real-world experience, a taste of working life. The evidenced-based professionalised approach to student voice tends to favour a certain type of student: those with time, resources, and experience. More so, we know that not all voices are treated equally, even when correct procedure is followed.

Imposing limits

As student voice work becomes increasingly more professionalised, we limit ourselves to a system of representation that struggles to address deep-seated structural issues. Legitimate grievances become individualised, buried in reports, or sometimes simply ignored. This is not to say that a seat at the table does not have its merits: sabbatical officers do an excellent job highlighting the reality of life on campus for so many students. Many officers work tirelessly, fighting the good fight, against considerable pressure from their institutions (and sometimes even their unions).

But challenging institutional inequalities and injustices often requires an extra step: confronting power directly and being prepared to fight on terms that are not amenable to the boardroom. It is here where SUs have a responsibility, particularly in our current global context, to go the extra step in supporting activists – even if this means muddying the partnership with our universities.

Practical steps

Student-Staff solidarity groups have been a common feature of the UCU strikes, along with occupations calling for radical reform in the face of institutional injustice – Goldsmiths being a great example of how direct action achieved significant institutional concessions.

More than this, student activists are increasingly more engaged with local and national movements, engaging with their new communities and building strong networks outside of the university. There are several measures student unions can take to protect, support and champion students taking direct action.

SUs should look more to local community and activist groups for training and mentoring opportunities. Sometimes we do not possess the necessary resources to best support activists inhouse and that is okay. Our cities and towns are rich in resources and full of seasoned activists that would love to help. Forging connections on a local level benefits both students and movements, whilst taking some immediate pressure off SU staff.

More so, there is a need to look at diversifying recruitment within campaign roles: do we put too much weight into having HE experience over bringing in successful community organisers from other sectors?


Reprioritising workloads for campaign and representation teams is another key step. When we talk about audit culture, we immediately think of overworked academics, engaged in exhaustive administrative tasks that take them away from meaningful work. This issue is widespread in SUs too. Tracking, measuring, and reporting on the work we do is obviously important, but there are questions to be asked over the extent to which it takes us away from the work of engaging students.

Priorities to need to be rebalanced. The work of campaign coordinators is often varied and not always easily quantifiable. So much of the value of campaign work is in building activist trust and navigating tricky power dynamics. Dealing with difficult topics requires a lot of self-education and introspection: mistakes will inevitably be made and relationships with students undergo a constant negotiation process of rebuilding and regaining trust. Moreover, these processes tend not to fit neatly within a 9-5 schedule. Normalising alternative and flexible working patterns will go a long way in improving relationships between student activists and SU campaign staff.

Creating space where dissent is normalised is something SUs are pretty good at but can always improve on. This is especially so when it comes to how we support officers and representatives when they speak out on injustice and become active members within a movement. The fear of bumping up against university partners should not dictate our daily activity. Tone-policing officers, or asking them to remain impossibly neutral, situates the union as a space of public relations rather than organising.

A new cohort of students are getting their first taste of direct action and protest politics. We have a chance to capture that energy and do something with it. Many of us involved in the 2010 student protests know how quickly that momentum burned out. The movements we see before us are arguably more sophisticated, stronger, and clearer in their demands for equality and justice. Far reaching, and going way beyond the university, calls for action are grounded in young and confident voices. It would be reckless not to embrace the optimism and energy of the current moment.

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