I have to admit that when I left university I tried pretty hard to distance myself from the student world. Two weeks before graduating I moved out of the terraced houses of Jesmond to a far more 'civilian' town on the other side of the river. I revelled in the fact that I could do a weekly shop without running into someone in fancy dress, and that my next door neighbour asked what I did as opposed to what I studied.
It's been two years since then and a couple of weeks ago, I realised a tiny part of me was missing the adorable 'love to hate' life of being a student. I had spotted a girl at the train station carrying a tote bag with Jeremy Corbyn's face screen printed onto it. I would not have been surprised if she had made it herself, spending a good few hours of her art degree's weekly contact hours finding the right profile of politics' unlikely superstar.
Faced with all that free time and all that passion, it's no wonder student activism is fierce and unforgiving. Recently, the National Union of Students has come under siege from so-called 'veteran' activists such as Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer after LGBT officer Fran Cowling would not share the stage with Tatchell during a debate at Canterbury Christ Church University. One candidate for NUS Women's Officer, Anna Lee, has been receiving horrible transphobic abuse since putting herself forward for the position. Next, a motion to remove the necessity of a Gay Mens' representative in University LGBT societies caused outrage, the main source of said outrage being those who weren't even present at the debate, and who never engage in student politics besides tweeting angrily about it.
Whether I agree with these decisions or motions is, frankly, by the by. The reaction from most people is the same: it's political correctness gone mad. These young things! Heaven forbid they should see what the real world is like!
In actual fact, students and their flights of fancy - you know, maintenance grants for poorer students, fair doctors' contracts, sexual consent lessons - is the reason why all sorts of things get done in the 'real world'. A trainee teacher on my Facebook newsfeed recently called the NUS 'an irrelevance'. Only last week the National Union of Teachers voted unanimously against the Government's proposed PREVENT Campaign, which would 'make it a duty for staff in publicly funded institutions to report on signs of radicalisation'. The proposal has been widely criticised for unregulated training and disproportionately targeting the Muslim community; NUS officials were at the forefront of the counter movement, with the organisation's Black Students' officer Malia Bouattia testifying against PREVENT at the United Nations in Geneva.
Students are not simply improving their campuses (or coating them in cotton wool, as some might say); they are changing laws. Laura Coryton was studying at Goldsmith's University when she created the change.org petition 'Stop Taxing Periods. Period', which in less than two years since gained over 320,000 signatures and succeeded in its mission to axe the 5% VAT on menstrual care products in the UK. She was formally recognised in parliament for her outstanding contribution to one of the most important campaigns of the past decade.
In both the United Kingdom and the USA, young people will have extreme political influence over the coming months (even swaying the votes in some US states), yet voting numbers among them are lower than any other group. When LBC asked how we could motivate them to get to the polling station, this is the sort of reply that they got:
— Edgelord BLAZINOAH (@WomenObeyUKIP) April 3, 2016
— Grench (@Green_mister) April 3, 2016
How can we expect students to exert their power in the 'real world' if we tell them they don't have any? How can we expect young people to make our society a better one if 'veteran' activists call their ideas 'pretentious wank'?
As the gap between student me and professional me gets ever larger, I will fight for the right for students to screen print their own Jeremy Corbyn tote bags. I will let them campaign for safe spaces and gender neutral toilets. I will let them discuss 'wanky' topics like privilege and intersectionality without ridicule. And before you step onto the 'PC gone mad' bandwagon, I would stop and consider whether you've changed any laws lately - or whether it's simply in your best interests that society stays the same.
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