Whatever happened to the heroes?

March 1, 2014 — 13 Comments

This appeared on the Huffington Post student blog and pretty much went viral. Decent – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/the-death-of-student-actism_b_4904133.html 

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalised racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.


It was “re-fresher’s week” and we were sat round on a circle of fold out chairs and boxes drinking warm cider out of mugs. We were taking turns to explain what had brought us here, to University. People were answering honestly and the notion most commonly expressed was that they just wanted to get away from home. It’s an impetus previous generations will struggle to understand. With the employment and property markets as they are, going away to Uni was the only realistic way to get away from mum and dad at eighteen, to find some independence, to ‘find our selves.’ But it’s also unavoidably a somewhat perverse reason to go into higher education; selfish, myopic, indulgent even – racking up loans and maxing out overdrafts just to get away from our doting parents.

As the question circulated it came to the turn of a philosophy undergrad that we’d only recently met. “Well,” he said, “I came to learn how to live… and how to die, I guess. I want to understand the forces at work in the world so I can change it for the better whilst I’m alive.” The room rippled with smirks followed by a hush of confusion. The boy blushed and conversation moved on.

I was too cowardly to defend him that night. My social survival mechanisms learnt in secondary school kicked in and I bit my tongue. But I wish I’d defended him. After all, truly, I had hoped to escape that ‘high school cool’ at university. I thought, finally, it would be cool to care. After all we were all paying a fortune to study here, why would we scoff at those who are passionate about what they study? Maybe, finally, people wouldn’t roll their eyes and sigh with disapproval when someone wanted to discuss whether or not Israel has a right to exist, or if there is a meaning to this life, even. Those hopes were misled, and now I am complicit.

The stark truth is university culture has fundamentally changed in the past decade. The anoraks are out and the ‘lads’ are in. “Education, education, education!” said Blair. An entire generation raised on American Pie and Skins went skipping off to “unaii” for the “experience” of a life time. Previous generations were rocked by Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. We lusted for gap years, Jägerbombs and casual sex.


It’s an infuriating paradox, but intellectual institutions are now infected by an aggressively anti-intellectual culture. Students are making more headlines for urinating on war memorials and telling rape jokes than for fighting injustice or advancing progressive ideas. Too many went, for all the wrong reasons and universities are fast becoming playgrounds for middle class kids to postpone their adulthood. They are dominated by an ugly ‘lad’ culture that fuses the elitist arrogance of public school rugby with a distinctively American, extroverted and stupefied ‘jock’ persona.

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest. Our own union has been powerless to stop the ACS (Accommodation and Commercial Services) setting up a subsidiary company of the university that can effectively be run as ruthless, profit hungry corporation. Sheffield’s union, apparently the best in the country, now contains overpriced shops, a selection of banking outlets and a fine dining restaurant (seriously) – all installed to exploit us not serve us.


The apathy that’s infecting Universities is not occurring in a vacuum. It’s part of a wider trend that is characteristic of our entire generation. Politicians have been able to so readily trample on the interest of young people because they know we don’t turn out to vote. The prescribed austerity has hardly touch the baby boomers, who reaped the benefits of the post war boom and extravagance of the Thatcher years, simply because they care enough to walk to a ballot box.

People my age will happily sit on their laptops ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ various worthy causes they purport to endorse. But in reality, all they’re doing is advertising themselves as philanthropists to their thousands of ‘friends’, yet failing to make a difference out in the real world. The Internet and social media have been utilized to magnificent effect in the Arab spring and across the developing world. But here in the cozy west they are insincere platforms of vanity and narcissism.

This generation has so many legitimate grievances; underhand privatization of universities is occurring under our noses, inequality has been rising for half a century and the banking elite continues to leach off the blood of the people. But we’re not scared by the forces that threaten the peace and equality we’ve always known, because we can’t imagine a world where things are any different. To my generation wars are what happened to our grandparents and human rights violations are things that occur in distant lands. We naively take the stability and security of our liberal democracy for granted and have become the most passive and politically impotent generation in living memory.

The student riots of 2010 represented a glimmer of hope. But essentially they were just a furious outburst of shock and anger at the unprecedented tripling of tuition fees (not too dissimilar to the other recent riots). The anger found no unifying purpose, no explanatory ideology or motivating cause. The businessmen who now run universities responded with vengeful and undemocratic means. They have banned sit ins and many forms of protests and the students who care are too fragmented and few to respond at all.

Maybe when the injustice and inequality becomes too much to bear this generation of students will finally wake up. I just hope we don’t leave it so long that the hard won gains of past generations of students are entirely undone.


13 responses to Whatever happened to the heroes?


    dear whoever you are,
    I completely agree.
    You go!


    This guy on Reddit had some nice additions,

    “I think it’s important for the left to realise that the student culture has very different motivations that for previous generations. It’s a very good point that university is often simply a way of escaping home life rather than being some romantic process of intellectual self-realisation. All NUS are good for is selling Nando’s deals and getting slightly cheaper travel insurance from STA. The entire student culture is a market in itself nowadays in which student life is stimulated by profit rather than knowledge and progress.”


    Another thoughtful response from Reddit,

    Ashamed to say I was one of ‘those’ students. Not a ‘lad’, but I just went to uni to ‘get out’ of home. I enjoyed the parties, the social life, some of my studies… thats it. I found anything to do with unions or protests to be tedious, and just didnt care about anything politically.
    I graduated last year, and during the summer started reading and caring about politics more than I ever had done in the three years I spent there.
    Its a shame thats what’s happening. And its true, students don’t vote, so we get screwed. The article makes a good point that people go to uni obsessed and focused on the crazy ‘American Pie/Skins’ lifestyle, and although it is pretty crazy, it never lives up to the hype, and it means our years at uni will not to be appreciated to the extent they could be.
    I still loved my time at uni, and it was invaluable to forming my opinions, but I agree with this article 100%.


    Totally agree with this guy on Reddit too,

    The activism of previous generations was just an anomaly. Universities are now a total reflection of bourgeois society where everyone is a customer and every relation is a cash relation. How can there be politics when you’re a customer? If you don’t like SPAM, you don’t buy it. If you don’t like the politics of today, you don’t participate in it.


    “intellectual institutions are now infected by an aggressively anti-intellectual culture”, nice work man, keep it up


    More gold from Reddit

    This is really a great blog post and sums up a lot of the experiences i encountered at university before graduating last summer.
    I think at some universities there is a general apathy towards politics and people just seem generally willfully ignorant of what is going on around them in terms of politics, activism and the world. However, there seems to be a significant variation of this willful ignorance between universities. The institution I attended in the UK certainly wasn’t anything exceptional (it was in the top 30 in most league tables) and over half of the students studied subjects allied to business. This, I believe, significantly influenced the atmosphere at the university. I know it might a be cliche, especially on subreddits like this, to say that business studies encourages anti-intellectualism and a lack of questioning, but i really think it is true: There was no challenging of the status quo, no societies i could join which were related to politics / activism, and not even a whisper of discontent when the student fees protests were going on. There was however a lot of talk about marketing, business law, corporate finance and names like Accenture, Ernest and Young, and IBM were hurled about with such enthusiasm and admiration that it made me think the only route to success was to submit to one of these corporations. My university felt like a conveyor belt to entering a self-serving job in the private sector. And because I had no interest in doing so, it made me feel strange, like there was something wrong with me, like I was an idiot because I didn’t marvel at people like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, or want a career in the private sector. It bothered me for a long time and to be honest it still does today.
    Universities these days really do just seem like conveyor belts to the private sector, and to hell to anyone else who wants to work towards making the world a better place for his fellow man. For someone like me, who had so little understanding of the career market, it seemed like the private sector was the only place to go. There was so little discussion of other career areas like the public or charity sector that it was embarrassing. Now i work in the charity sector, and i don’t think i heard the idea of doing so mentioned once during the whole time i was at university in career advice sessions or in meetings with career advisors. As a Psychology student all I heard about was HR, marketing, PR, market research, or I could struggle to get a job with the NHS, or if I was really lucky I could pay £12,000 to study a pointless postgrad at the same university.
    I’ll never forget the day when i attended a career session after my lecture for a careers society. There was a presentation and a PowerPoint slide came up which presented all of the private organisations the university had links with. There was the usual bunch, Accenture, Barclays, Capgemeni, Deloitte, Ernest and Young, etc. etc. I literally saw the people around me begin to salivate when they saw all of the names, it was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had.


    And another from Reddit,

    This was so moving to me, it brought me to tears. I have been organizing with students, and specifically student governments, for about 3 years now and I just went through an experience which is a scathing example of what this blog describes.
    I live in the state of Oregon in the U.S. and I have been organizing to keep State funded universities, from being privatized. Of course this is a larger movement towards austerity (national and international) but to bring it to a very concrete level, and give this struggle some context, these are some statistics published a few weeks ago in a Portland newspaper about Oregon public post-secondary education.
    About 25 years ago in the 1989-90 school year the State paid for 62% of the total cost of public post-secondary education, and the students paid for 29% of the total, in tuition and fees. The remainder was paid by other sources. In the 2011-12 school year the State paid 19% and the students paid 72%.
    Of course, this hasn’t lead to greater student influence, and instead the State student association (OSA) has been placed under special restrictions, one of which makes it illegal for the OSA to spend money on a ballot initiative that might do something like, I don’t know, reverse this trend.
    I think most of us students in the U.S. understand what I’m about to say, but for the international audience (at least those nations whom don’t require students to have to pay for a college degree with loans) this State divestment has been linked with skyrocketing tuition. In the states on the west coast, even accounting for inflation (which has also been skyrocketing) tuition has been increased anywhere between 100 to 300 percent in the last 10 years.
    So back to the story. Just two weeks ago I and a few dozen student leaders were in the State capitol ready to have a sit-in. Because after 3 years of talking with legislators about these issues, and not just being ignored but actually having the situation get much worse, most of us were ready to escalate. When at the last moment, the student body president of the university leading the campaign to try to get state law-makers to invest in post-secondary education, changes his mind because he worried a sit-in, or any form of civil disobedience, hurt his reputation, and his standing with the very law makers who have been shafting us for more than 20 years.
    Why? Because as this blogger (Liam I assume) said, being elected to student government, or union, or association, means you’ve won a popularity contest, not that you have any responsibility.
    The afterward to this story is that I have lost all hope in working with the student body. For additional irony, this was the most radical university in what is often considered to be one of the most radical, or leftist, states in the U.S. I have since moved on to now working full-time with the Socialist Alternative Party and f*** any elected student representatives who want me to sit around and wait until next year (the 2014 legislative session ended 2 days ago) .
    I don’t know what this says about the fate of student organizing as a whole, but as for Oregon, we’re screwed.


    I have some serious points to make on the topic of student activism, but I want to get a short-ish rant off my chest first.

    This article pretty much sums the elitist, ivory tower lefty-marxist wanker viewpoint that I just despise. If you measure student activism in rainy protests, in book clubs examining the works of gramsci and in SWP membership, then of course you’re going to come back empty handed. Because you’re imposing a (extremely left-wing) world-view of what students should do, in a high-handed manner akin to an apparatchik setting the ‘people’s curriculum’ of approved activities.

    You give the game away and reveal your ideology when you say “Universities are businesses, education is job training” as if this were a bad thing. Well there are many higher-education providers that are run for a profit and provide an excellent standard of education. There are many people who do see their degree as job training and a door to a high-flying career (doctors for instance). To paint these people as “selfish, myopic” is both narrow-minded and patronising.

    As for your comment about anti-intellectualism, this is again a sign of your narrow-mindedness towards what is an acceptable intellectual course of activity. You basically dismiss anyone who finds politics or philosophy boring. I happen to find neither subject boring but nor would I want to approach either subject through sitting around all day on my backside engaging in laconic debates about the categorical imperative. I also find other subjects, such as soil engineering or art history intensely dull, but I do not criticise those who do choose to study these subjects as lacking in intellectual outlook.

    Finally, as for your comments about student unionism, this is more a sign of your ignorance of the subject matter. Students’ Unions have to cater to students of all tastes and backgrounds. Not everyone wants to man the barricades and shake their megaphone. Some might actually want to seriously engage in their subject while in a quiet and relaxing environment, eg the SU cafe. Others might want to meet with other students and take part in non-academic pursuits, such as running a radio station or eating mexican food or even (shock horror!) playing rugby – and to this end they join SU societies.

    Overall this article is an exercise in intolerance. An intolerance to the changing nature of student life and its increasing diversity. This article could be summed up as “oh if only every student were a white, middle-class male hyper-aware, super-engaged trendy lefty.”


      Firstly, I intended on ‘giving the game away’, i’m not ashamed of my political stance. And never did i imply that the natural sciences are not intellectually valuable. I explicitly said that it is the jock/lad culture that resides in universities that is anti-intellectual.

      As for your endorsement of privatised education – i guess it’s not a problem if mummy and daddy are paying your 9k fess and giving you pocket money to enjoy plenty of lattes in the union. Not all of are so fortunate.


        Perhaps then you would have been better writing an article on why students aren’t as left-wing as you? That would have been a more intellectually honest and coherent effort at least.

        The state paid for my university education – and I am now paying it back.


    Following on from the rant in my previous comment, I now have some serious points on the reasons for the decline in student activism.

    The first is that the cold war concluded in favour of capitalism, ie the status quo in Britain. It was easy in the 60s, 70s and 80s to challenge the existing orthodoxies of capitalism because there was an obvious working solution. No need to devise a radical alternative for yourself because the people of the Soviet Union had already done it for you.

    Following the ‘end of history’, the Soviet Union and its satellites collapsed and the supposedly radical alternative was shown to have perpetuated mass totalitarianism, repression and economic ruin. Meanwhile Maoist China adopted the tools of capitalism and consequently living standards exploded. The bright socialist utopias in the east were no more.

    The second reason has been the post-1992 expansion of Higher Education in the United Kingdom. In days gone past Students’ Unions held regular general meetings with turnout in the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. But since then Universities have increased enormously. In the last 30 years most Russell Group universities have increased four or five fold.

    The key implication of this was that students were no longer a tightly-knit community of like-minded individuals. Campuses with 3000-5000 students have quad- or quintupled in size over the past 25 years. Students now no longer regularly live in halls in most universities for all 3 years of their studies. This surely makes it harder to spread a culture of uniform activities and well-organised political activism.

    And no more were students the product of the aristocracy, well-to-do middle class bien pensants and grammar school success stories. With increasing penetration, many of the new students were more concerned with more ordinary pursuits than political activism. Many were also the first in their families to go to University – which has been casually associated with an increased focus on their course and a diminished focus on outside activities.

    Closely associated with the increase in numbers of students was the increase in their breadth. With more students following non-traditional methods of study, working alongside their degree, working to postgraduate level, or having caring responsibilities, so too have the dreams and aspirations of these students moved away from visions of socialist utopia to more ordinary concerns such as adequate childcare facilities or improved lecturer feedback.

    The increasing diversity of students has also stemmed from the increased number of international students now studying at UK universities. How can a culture of political activism truly flourish throughout a campus if as many as one in eight of all students come from a country with no experience of freedom of speech or free and fair democracy? If you are returning home after 3 years of study, do you feel the same desire to change the system at University?

    An additional change has been the increasing “partnership” (to use the correct buzzword) between Universities and student representatives. When Jon Snow (the news presenter) protested against the lack of student representation on Liverpool University’s board, he was expelled. Nowadays it is unheard of for a university to lack student representation on its governing body. Universities pump money into running large networks of course representatives and enforce policies guaranteeing these reps a say in faculty meetings.

    At least part of the decline in visible student activism can be attributed to the fact that students have more influence in their universities and hence do not need to protest ineffectually. Former SU Presidents often said that occupying the Vice-Chancellor’s Office was the only way to arrange a meeting – now those Presidents stand accused, if anything, of being too close to Uni management.

    Finally much of the change has to be attributed to a change in the attitudes of students and young people in general. Students are disillusioned with political parties. Young people nowadays engage in social matters through issue based campaigning. The appeal of shoving leaflets through letterboxes or selling copies of the Daily Worker in drizzle has greatly diminished. Why would you bother when you could actually get stuff done, like volunteer to feed the homeless, re-work community gardens or raise thousands of funds for charity?

    The landscape of students and their politics has changed profoundly, so it is not altogether unsurprising that the nature of student protest has too.


      A) Socialism is not Stalinism, Maoism or related to any other of the despotic regimes of the 20th century that purported to be Marxist. Socialism means running the economy for the benefit of the populous, an intellectual tradition that indeed has its roots in the writings of Marx.

      B) There were no winners in the cold war apart form the arms dealers. Millions died in proxy wars and world was torn in two.

      Other than that, you make some interesting comments about the changing demographic of universities and means of protest and activism available to students today. Regardless, it is clear that this generation students is failing to even attempt to bring about any meaningful change in the world – That was the central assertion of the article.

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