How Active is Student Activism?

Gregory Holyoke 21 February 2019
Image Credit: Lauren Chan

Cambridge students are, generally, quite opinionated. They are so on a wide range of issues. To have an opinion (and to be able to argue it) is an inherent part of the application process. Passivity is generally not an option. But, obviously it’s one thing to hold an opinion, and another to actually transform that into some form of activism.

That being said, there’s no shortage of opportunity. In the week before coming back for Lent Term, I spent hours trawling through CUSU’s Clubs and Societies page looking for inspiring ways to change the world. Though this may have been a slightly self-indulgent way of dealing with one of the existential crises that this university constantly doles out, I did see there was a plethora of possibilities: I could become anything from a Democrat Abroad to an Effective Altruist. Sadly in my case, all of this promise culminated in minor parts in a couple of lesser know plays, being an “average, but no superstar” mid-level college rower, and evidently a smattering of student journalism: hardly a hardened campaigner.

Yet while it is possible to go through the whole of university without actually engaging in any form of student activism, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and doesn’t play an important role. The recent divestment campaign is an interesting example: it’s easy to be cynical, to say that nothing has been achieved, to ask what a few students can do to change the practices of a rich institution stuck in its ways for more than 800 years. Yet, it is objectively impressive how dedicated certain members of the university are about this. Since the beginning of the year, there have been multiple protests, which have even made national news. We are far from being a university free from all the woes of the arms trade and fossil fuels, but progress has been made, and this is no pyrrhic victory.

However, what is perhaps more impressive is how this campaign has encompassed more than just the classic protests and demands that are perhaps expected from student activism. The concerted efforts of the student newspapers to publicise this issue, through articles and videos, in conjunction with the protests, has also been effective and it serves as a reminder that the definition of activism is diverse and goes beyond the picket line.

Party political activism is, well, more active than you might expect as well. I had always imagined it to be filled with overly sincere bespectacled young men and women in a room discussing the state of the world without actually trying to change it. Port and Policy, and such like events may perpetuate this view, but from what I’ve seen there’s actually a lot of coordination with active local political party branches, and real door to door campaigning. Granted, getting involved is more daunting knowing that your activism will lead to doors being slammed in your face, but surely this is more useful and fulfilling than sitting around preaching to the converted.

Away from party politics there are also numerous creative examples of student activism that we can all get involved in. In just a couple of weeks, Playtime is teaming up with the Free Periods campaign for the Period Party. You can head on down to dance the night away while raising money and breaking some taboo-gies (I’ll hopefully see you there!).

Cambridge, in short, offers a spectrum of avenues for political engagement. From cultural politics to more orthodox channels of involvement, student activism is, it seems, alive and well.