Can students be labelled apathetic?

10 March 2010

Yes – Julia Rampen

We’ve all come across a student activist. They’re the lonely figure handing out flyers, or sitting in an Amnesty cage, or heading off to get arrested at a power station – and they’re generally quite well known for it. Their fervour and passion make them stand out amongst the rest of us: the apathetic population of students.

It only takes a quick glance at Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) to see that the effort the average student puts into politics is at an all time low. The campaign for disaffiliation from the National Union of Students (NUS) this year was unusual. Most years, Cambridge has remained attached to the body by default, because fewer than the required 2,000 people bother to cast a vote. In the forthcoming CUSU elections, there is only one candidate each standing for the positions of Co-ordinator, Student Support and Access and Funding (if you don’t count trusty RON – Re-Open Nominations). With a student population of over 17, 000, the fact that only a handful of people are standing for election suggests that the rest of us truly can’t be arsed.

At this point, you might want to object, arguing that not everyone has the time or confidence to become a student representative. Fine. A five minute scan of The Times would be enough to have a basic idea of what’s going on in the world. However, a recent ‘Unite’ poll has shown that student ignorance of politics is widespread. A third of students polled did not know that Gordon Brown is the leader of the Labour Party. Nick Clegg may have been a Casanova in his youth, but his fortunes have since declined: less than half of students knew he heads the Lib Dems. Overall, an eighth of those polled said they had no interest in politics at all.

Indeed, it seems that the interests of the British student population lie elsewhere. If the most recent 20 forum posts on the website the Student Room are anything to go by, the greatest preoccupation for students are relationships and sex. Other concerns include finance (‘What is the minimum amount of money you would pick up off the floor?’), food (‘Pizza Hut?’) and creative production (‘Music to strip to – advice urgently needed’).

But let’s step back for a moment; let’s stop being apathetic about our apathy. It’s certainly not just a student problem, as a recent survey of British public attitudes demonstrates. Of those asked, only 56% of people believed they had a duty to vote in general elections, in contrast to around 68% in 1991. Election turnout for the 2001 election was at 59.4%, an all-time low. As the competition between Brown and Cameron appears to centre on who is disliked the least, student apathy seems just a small current in a much greater tide.

Ironically, the one exception to British political apathy was focused on events taking place across the Atlantic: the US election race of 2008. There were many reasons for people to get excited about this election, but one in particular was the way in which Obama’s campaign broke rules: it took on Clinton, the favourite; it raised funds from small donors rather than big corporations, and, with an African American candidate, challenged attitudes to race. The Cambridge Union was packed the night of the US election. Plan to do something similar on the night of the British election?

All this suggests that it is not only accurate to talk of student apathy, but it is also important to do so. Like everyone in Britain, we’re disillusioned with the political system. If we acknowledge our disillusionment, we take the first step towards investigating its causes and, perhaps, breaking some rules. Because, let’s admit it: at the moment, we just don’t care!

No – Raymond Li

By picking up this paper, you have proven that you and thousands of other students are not politically apathetic. If you were you would not be interested in reading the news. News is political and you are interested in politics – don’t deny it.

On a broader level, it is wrong to argue that students are apathetic to politics in general. If they were then no-one would have cared when Nick Griffin got two MEP seats for the BNP last year. There was much frenzied activity revolving around ‘Unite against Fascism’, which counts students as one of its core member groups. I believe most students would find the idea of a BNP government to be beyond their nightmares. If there is one way to get students angry about politics, it’s to tell them that Nick Griffin has installed himself as Fuehrer in the Commons. Students would be at the frontline fighting against the troops of Britain’s Third Reich.

 However, this year’s election feels like a damp squib. We have seen it all before. You have the character on his last legs and destined for the political z-list (Gordon Brown), the golden Blair wannabe who’s almost destined to win (David Cameron) and Mr. Nobody (Nick Clegg – once, my friend actually thought I was referring to Nick Griffin).

Understandably, there’s not much to get excited about. In fact the only thing that would get an ounce of excitement would be if President Obama suddenly annexed Britain. At least he would be the first Black Prime Minister of Britain and I hear his wife’s dresses are just wonderful.

In the latest statistics on students and the General Elections, there are contradictions. The Unite poll, which provoked the controversy about students’ apathy in the first place, has contradictory evidence. It showed that less than half would vote in the elections but in the same poll, 41% believed that becoming personally involved in politics was more likely to achieve change than by voting. Only 12% admitted that they had no interest in politics full stop.

To view British politics as a thrashing of egos between political parties is severely limiting and lazy. Students may be apathetic to party politicians but they are highly prominent in other political areas. Students have been the warriors at the forefront of single-issue politics. Historically, students have played a leading role in campaigns against apartheid and nuclear armament. Recently they have engaged in campaigns against university fees, climate change, the war in Iraq and the human rights abuses in Burma and Darfur.

In Cambridge, there has been a wide spectrum of political activity. Who could forget the occupation of the Law Faculty last year? Recently students have got involved with the Cambridge Stands Up Week last term and the well-attended ‘Work to change the World’ careers event last month. There is a lot of good work done by Cambridge United Nations and Amnesty International. Clearly students still care about politics.

There are signs that the next generation of university students will be more politically active. The Youth Parliament has witnessed a meteoric rise in terms of turnout in the Member of Youth Parliament elections. In 2008, the turnout broke the 500,000 mark.

 Politics is about bringing change to the population and students account for a significant proportion of the electorate. If you want to bring change then please vote in the general elections.

Even if you don’t care about the contenders, sign that ballot paper if only for the pleasure of wiping that sneer from Nick Griffin’s face.