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Not our business? The politics of depoliticising our student movement

Cory Doctorow

Much has been said during the recent OUSU election debates – and across the country more generally – about the futility or general irrelevance of the student movement, its propensity for unnecessary “posturing“ on international issues, and its incessant tendency to get “too political” without real justification. On this narrative, there stands in stark contrast to the deeply ineffectual and “out of touch” movement the grand, mythical creature of the “Ordinary Student”. Nobody knows for sure who this student is, or what he (and it is usually a he) is said to represent. All we are told is that he “doesn’t care about the issues which the NUS concerns itself with”, that he feels it “wastes its time” debating such issues as refugees and asylum-seekers, the deportation of immigrants, or matters of international politics. He would rather it address “everyday”, “non-political”, authentically “student” issues instead, though precisely what this entails also tends to remain vague and undefined.

We could spend hours discussing just how pernicious the above narrative is, not least for its profoundly condescending view of the “ordinary student”, and its corresponding dismissal of the possibility that these “non-student” issues might in fact be issues of foremost concern for many of us: students who find themselves facing the humiliating prospect of deportation, students who struggle to meet the unrelenting demands of increasingly unaffordable living and tuition costs, or students who find themselves isolated, marginalised, and openly discriminated against in the name of this government’s disgraceful PREVENT policy. Perhaps most striking is how this narrative wholly disregards a proud and deeply moving tradition of student-led struggles here in Britain and across the world.

I will never forget listening to the legendary Denis Goldberg in Oxford’s own Examination Schools, just two years ago, as he spoke of his experiences resisting the Apartheid regime in South Africa. His conviction in the famous Rivonia Trial, alongside Nelson Mandela, led to a gruelling 22 year prison sentence, much of which was spent in isolation. Over the course of the talk, Goldberg stressed again and again the importance of the international student movement, and indeed of the NUS in particular, in mobilising international opposition to the Apartheid regime and placing pressure on governments – not least the British, at this point an adamant ally of Apartheid – to divest from and place sanctions upon South Africa. This in turn proved essential to the dismantling of an abhorrent system of institutionalised racial segregation and domination. The NUS helped to found the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and over the course of several years won widespread university divestment from corporations engaged in trade with South Africa. In doing so, it placed the issue of apartheid at the forefront of British electoral politics and forced it onto the international agenda.

Goldberg stressed again and again the importance of the international student movement, and indeed of the NUS in particular

Around the world, student movements, and solidarity between them, has been at the heart of various struggles for liberation: liberation from domination in all its forms, from the debasing chains of colonialism and economic exploitation, from racism, misogyny and homophobia, or indeed from the crippling effects of rampant authoritarianism. Egyptian students in 2011 played a pivotal role in organising and mobilising opposition to the almost thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, culminating in a revolution whose reverberations were felt across the globe – not only in other Arab capitals, but also finding echoes in the Occupy movement and in the global resurgence of a political culture of protest and direct action. To name but a few more striking examples, students led Hong Kong’s Democracy movement in 2014, spearheaded the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, stood at the frontlines of Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, and, standing alongside workers across France, brought the entire French economy to its knees in May of 1968.

The false dichotomy of “student” and “non-student” issues, and the accompanying narrative of the student movement’s “unnecessary posturing” around political issues, form part of a concerted effort to depoliticise one of the most powerful platforms we have for a vibrant civil society. This process threatens to leave little more than a culture of apathy and indifference in its wake. The notion of the ‘Ordinary Student’ has little to offer to a world that finds itself facing a rising tide of quasi-fascism, racial and gendered scapegoating, pervasive exploitation and injustice, and an ever-growing scent of napalm.

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