The reluctant student activists of the Covid pandemic

Megan Ball is President at Winchester SU

Over the last year, students feel that what little power they had has been completely snatched from their hands.

Many of them lost their final months of school or college, given grades judged on their socio-economic background, as they found themselves at the centre of a DfE shambles.

Their entire university experience has changed – with none of the additional social extras like coffees in the campus cafe, a quiz night in their SU, or group work gathered around a book-strewn table in the library.

It is now one that now operates from the confines of their bedroom, whether that’s in their family home or in their isolated university accommodation.

It’s not hard to see why some of them may feel like they’ve been dealt a bad hand.

And they’re doing so against the backdrop of a blame game being played by the press – the rhetoric of students being the cause of rising infection rates and community unrest, landing them with responsibility for poor government guidance when most just wanted to get on with their studies.

Students, whether intentionally or not, have become the centre of attention – the centre of a Covid-19 spotlight.

As such, it’s no wonder that SUs have heard from more students than they ever have before, and not surprising that many have discovered the power of their voice and the importance of raising it.

Every SU I speak to has seen it – students that we might never had heard from before taking their grievances to social media, calling for rent strikes and tuition fee refunds, hosting Zoom organising meetings and rallies for virtual protests.

Sometimes they’ve been involved in SU run events and meetings. Often, they’ve done it outside of the ambit of the SU. They’re angry, they’re organised, they’re interested and they want to see action.

The pandemic, in other words, has borne a new era of student activism. But what if these students are “reluctant” activists? What if these are students who, in any other year, would never speak out about the poor quality of service that they are receiving because it doesn’t come naturally, or even comfortably, to them?

Ends of the spectrum

There seems to be two ends of the spectrum when it comes to these new types of students that are reaching to us at the moment.

On one end, there are students reaching out to us who are incredibly apologetic – asking for help on course problems, financial hardship, poor housing conditions and Covid-induced issues.

They often caveat that they’re “wasting our time” and “probably won’t change anything anyway”, labelling themselves and their issues as an inconvenience and assuming that we probably have better things to do in our busy schedule. But they are still reaching out to us – within them, a glimmer of activism fed by the level of discontent that they feel, not prepared to sit by and do nothing without reaching out to someone.

These are also the same students who regularly tell us that they’re not good at expressing their views or don’t have time – and then go on to write dissertation-length, articulate emails, perfectly expressing exactly how they and their cohort are feeling.

At the other end, there is another group of students reaching out to us that are apoplectic with rage – voicing intense anger, frustration and down-right annoyance at the issues that they are facing.

They speak out about the same things as the apologetic activists – academic success, rent difficulties, digital poverty – but they do so with statements of total indignation, taking matters into their own hands, holding individuals accountable in perhaps a slightly stronger way than we would recommend, and often led by a level of misinformation after being whipped up into a total tizzy.

But within this group we’ve seen fantastic organising skills – people who are adept at ‘“rallying the troops” and passionately articulating their contempt, not afraid to publicly and privately hold leaders of universities and students unions to account.

These students are bold and brave activists, fed by their unrest and anger, but interestingly, not ones that are course reps, part-time officers, engaged with student opportunities. They are often the loudest voices at the moment, but they have never fully engaged before.

Reluctance

What we’re seeing is two types of reluctance.

With the first group, there’s a reluctance to raise their voice and express views for fear of being ignored, incorrect or not making any difference – one that may have stopped them from engaging with student activism and student voice opportunities before.

With the second group, there’s a reluctance to take assistance from others, often including their students’ union, and fundamentally a reluctance to give up or give in unless exactly what they’re asking for is secured, even if this is sometimes unachievable.

In the middle, there are students who perhaps have raised their voices before – course reps, elected part-time officers, members of democratic forums and groups. Those who are well versed in the complaint’s channels or platforms in which to raise their voice. These seem to be hovering somewhere in the middle – frustrated and annoyed, still occasionally apologising for using up our time, but voicing their views through the formal processes.

But this raises the question – how do we better inform and educate all our students in channels of activism? How do we ensure that students of all personalities and confidence levels are given the tools to properly express themselves and raise concerns or feedback about their experience? How do we engage students across the whole of this activism spectrum?

The question

If we seem to be only picking up the middle group mentioned earlier – then we’re missing the mark. By only attracting the one type of student then we miss a whole other range of skills and techniques – the steady and articulate determination of the apologetic activists who have shown us incredible communicating skills in their policy length emails, and the bold confidence from the angry activists in holding senior managers to account, who have also shown us strong skills in uniting students that bridges courses and levels of studies.

From both, we have seen perseverance to fix the broken system; a newfound determination to fight for what is right, for themselves and their fellow students.

That’s not to say that the group of students that we regularly hear from and are already engaged don’t have these skills – there’s a reason that they’re successful course reps, officers and active members of the students’ union. They believe in the power of student voice, representation and activism.

But what if we can harness this collective activism by all parties? How do we continue to encourage these new “reluctant” activists, and support them to step into positions of power and continue to do things their way?

As a sector, we have been inspired by students who have led grassroots campaigns – the likes of Students For Academic Mitigation and UoM Rent Strike. We should use this, and these inspirational student-led activism campaigns, as an opportunity to attract new thoughts, ideas and ways of working.

But we should also use it as an opportunity to revisit and reassess our engagement tactics. If there are gaps in our participation that is leaving some students feeling isolated, resulting in either feeling as though reaching out to us brands them as a nuisance or time-wasting, or so alone and frustrated that they must take everything into their own hands, running 40+ hour a week campaigns alongside their studies, then we need to find a fix.

If we are seeing new types of student activists emerge with a drive to represent and speak up, we should harness that energy. Their inner motivation to right wrongs is critical to students’ unions and their progress for their members – so how do we ensure that we keep the door open for them when there isn’t the background of a nationwide HE crisis and a global pandemic?

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