Student activism growing

10:45 am - March 9th 2010

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Guest post by Adam Ramsay

Last week, around 7000 students voted in their union elections at Southampton. This broke the UK student union turnout record set at Edinburgh last year. Not to be outdone, Edinburgh students came back on Thursday night, and re-broke the record. Around 7,200 cast ballots – four times as many as eight years ago.

This trend has continued in the other campus elections that have taken place so far this term: both Reading and Queens Belfast have broken their own records.

This time last year, I wrote a piece for The Herald pointing out how university after university had smashed turnout records, how Britain had seen the first wave of lecture theatre occupations in 30 years, how students were fast becoming the backbone of many of Britain’s progressive movements: how politicians should take notice.

It seems this wasn’t just a wave of post-Obama electoral enthusiasm. It’s more than 2 years now since that knobbly-kneed Senator stood in a New Hampshire sports hall and told us that “yes we can”. Cynicism over expenses, Copenhagen and visionless conservatism could have seeped in.

So why hasn’t it? The internet? Partly – social-networking, YouTube, and websites are key to campaigns. But any good activist knows that face-to-face always beats Facebook, that vision and values win votes: that you can’t use new media to convey a message no one wants to hear.

I think there are 2 answers:

1) Campaigns are more professional. Activists trained as the school children of the Bush era, Iraq war demos & Make Poverty History have grown up, leant their lessons, and taght each other.

2) Students are pissed off. This year’s average graduate will find herself with £23,500 of debt and few prospects of a decent job. She paid a fortune to go to uni, and saw few improvements in teaching quality. The housing market was designed to benefit baby-boomers, and the popped property bubble left us renting damp & unloved flats after landlords saw ‘investment in renovation’ become ‘good money after bad’. We have been left a world with a changing climate and trashed economy. We are going to have to clean up this mess, and instead of getting a grovelling apology from a those who taught that greed is good, we are slapped with ASBOs for taking out the stress of a shitty evening job with a couple too many pints.

The belief that young people don’t vote is self-perpetuating. Politicians chasing the grey vote come up with great ways to make baby boomers’ lives better (in itself, a good thing). They get good at phone canvassing during the day, and driving pensioners to the polls.

They don’t pour big bucks into getting students registered, canvassing halls of residence, or buying mobile phone databases. They certainly don’t challenge the “respect agenda” or student hardship & debt – now Clegg has backed tuition fees, only the Green Party supports free education. Even “youth unemployment” is talked about like animal suffering, not pension cuts: patronised people to feel guilty about, not empowered voters to fear.

But the truth is that young voters and activists will decide the fate of this election. Age was one of the best descriptors of how an American voted in 2008. Recent polls have generation credit-crunch favouring the Conservatives by 6% while showing little evidence of sharing Tory values. If this soft vote is mobilised to swing away from the party that is promising to screw it hardest, so will the election.

Adam Ramsay was 2008-9 president of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, works for student network People & Planet (, and writes for

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Reader comments

Erm, other than the fact that it is your generation which will be picking up the bill for decades unless that huge budget deficit is cut…or do you think there is magic money out there for you which those eeeevil Tories are deliberately going to withhold?

And has the climate never changed before?

I note you don’t give us the actual turnout.

There are 24,000 students at Edinburgh, so I make it 30%.

Very good points, mostly, shame it was let down by suggesting ‘Clegg has backed tuition fees’ when he has done the opposite: — The only change from the previous Lib Dem position being phasing them out rather than a big bang.

“This year’s average graduate will find herself with £23,500 of debt and few prospects of a decent job.”

I wish people would stop refering to the student loans as debt. Repaying a student loan is not the same thing as repaying a mortgage or credit card debt. You only repay once you in a job and earning over a certain salary. Even then you don’t have to do anything – repayments appear on your pay slip, and are effectively the same as a tax. Lose your job, the payments stop. Failing to repay the student loan is never going to mean your home is re-possessed, or the boys are going to be sent around to give you a kicking. Furthemore the interest rate is the rate of inflation, so effectively you only pay back the equivelant of what you borrow.

Frankly it is an excellent form of credit, and the major flaw with the current funding arrangements is that they don’t extend to funding post-graduate courses (meaning if you want to do a masters or phd, your options are scholarships, career development loans from commercial providers, and/or the bank of mum and dad).

Adam, have you or will you ever get a job outside politics/student politics?

cjcjc- 30% is bloody good for an SU election. Most SUs struggle to get even half that kind of turnout. Well done EUSA students. That’s very impressive.

Blanco- Will you ever stop trolling around the blogs?

Turnout may be increasing in some universities, but at mine (Warwick) there was actually a (small) drop in turnout. Student activism has been high on the campus with electioneering for the general election and incidents of Tory posters in nearby Leamington being defaced (with the likes of ‘This poster was paid for by Lord Aschroft = ‘the sleaze of Belize” rather than something more snappy yet fouler) but nevertheless the turn out is still low, at about 25% of the overall student population. In times when elections are conducted fully online, and every student I know has and spends hours each day on facebook, such poor turnout is shoddy indeed. Hearing of Edinburgh’s 30% turnout is still a disgrace – we wouldn’t say our national representatives have effective mandates to govern if turnout is that low, so why should our student representatives be content to win with the support (bolstered by things like Single Transferable Vote) on mediocre levels of turnout?

Although fees ARE an issue for students, the vast majority are ultimately far more interested in finding the right jobs, well paid jobs, and getting on with life. Fees will continue to be a fact of life, and certainly wont be eradicated whilst current students like myself vote for union representatives and are therefore not an issue. What the student populations want, in my opinion, are student unions who actually have power to effect changes, not merely be shadows of their universities.

Furthermore, at Warwick and I’m sure many other Universities we must improve awareness of what can and cannot be achieved by Sabbatical officers – in my personal experience of this year’s campaign, there were far too many promises which are impossible to achieve. Fortunately a number of very good candidates with a good idea of their role were elected and will hopefully deliver on reasonable manifestos.

cjcjc – sure, but if turnout in student union elections has quadrupled in recent years, then that is an interesting phenomenon in itself. If this is because students are getting better at self organising than they used to be, then this is significant I am not claiming unions get more than 50% of the vote. What I am saying is that something has changed – and it’s not just Edinburgh. I was at Cardiff last night, where they have record numbers of candidates running, and expect another record turnout for them too – every student I speak to is seeming the same thing.

Planshift: “I wish people would stop refering to the student loans as debt.”

Sure, they don’t send the boys round, but the repayment levels are very low: you can be working pert time as a supermarket shelf stacker, and have to pay off your loan (if I remember the figures right).

Philip: Every party says that they don’t like fees, and that they wouldn’t have them in an ideal world – but that they ‘have to in practice’. The Lib Dem position about what they’d do in government is just the same. If Tories and Labour support fees, so do Lib Dems. The desire to phase them out is all very well, but Nick Clegg is going into this election supporting the position that tuition fees should remain.

Blanco – Why, you hiring?

Luke – thanks,


” how students were fast becoming the backbone of many of Britain’s progressive movements: how politicians should take notice.”

Yeah, that prospect really terrifies me.

“A third of students do not know Gordon Brown is the leader of the Labour Party and almost half are unlikely to vote in the upcoming election, a poll suggests. A similar proportion failed to identify David Cameron as leader of the Conservatives, the survey by student accommodation provider Unite found. The poll of students in England and Scotland found less than half knew Nick Clegg was the Liberal Democrat leader.

“The National Union of Students denied students were apathetic about politics.”

Who blames anyone for not knowing who Nick Clegg is?

@Adam – Touche, touche.


I know it is still relatively low as a percentage, but 25% is higher than almost any unions got a decade ago. I am not saying there isn’t a long way to go. I am not arguing that unions are brilliantly representative, and I certainly agree that they need to get better at “talking softly but carrying a big stick” with their universities – and that the need for jobs is probably the biggest fear of young people today. But my point is that, if union election turnouts are going up fast, then this is a shift in politics, and national parties could be capitalising on it, which would lead to much higher turnout among students. Also, it’s interesting to see that the higher turnout election at Warwick (last year) saw a leftish member of a pollitical party elected, compared to his relatively a-political predecessor – as seems often to be the case.

I like the ‘paid for by the sleaze of Belize’ – that’s amusing.


12. Planeshift

Adam, I seriously doubt a part time shelf stacker on min wage earns enough to meet the repayment threshold. As I understand it (willing to be corrected) the threshold is 15k. After that you pay 9% of earnings – so somebody on a 25k salary pays 900 a year back.

Re: 9

You realise for every 50% that doesn’t know something, there’s another 50% that does. I’d be equally terrified if the future of statistical interpretation rested with you, but it thankfully doesn’t.

Good Grief. Is the title of this thread for real? Who cares?

Well students might I suppose – that’s fair enough, but really??

It would be funny to ask the blokes from Rod Liddle’s ”Millwall Online” site what they thought of the subject.

Sorry for being crass, but I couldn’t help it.

Why don’t you stop talking bollocks about Millwall, Damon? Between them, Rod Liddle and Shite Online, you never talk about anything except trolling shite.

Bernard – it was a reaction to a headline that said ”Student activism growing”.

And that site you are referring to is miles better than the Socialist Worker line that you seem to closely follow.
Anyone who uses the ”troll” word lightly should be held to ridicule.
I think I was right about UAF mindset.

So you only read the headline then? Did the whole thing contain too many big, scary words for you?

I was a bit crass, I did say that.
And I’m sure that students have got a right to feel p’d off with the levels of debt thay are being forced to rack up and their job prospects looking not so good. But it was the line in the Herald piece about ”…… the first co-ordinated wave of university occupations in the UK for 30 years.” ….. and I just thought of how that student action might look to some parts of the more cynical working class. (People like those Millwall fans for example – who seem to enjoy taking the mick out of anybody who isn’t like them).

I would find it hard to take an occupation of some student building seriously, no matter what I felt about the cause.
That’s not trolling Bernard, that’s just someone having an opinion not like your own.

Déjà vu?

On “[politicians] don’t pour big bucks into getting students registered, canvassing halls of residence, or buying mobile phone databases.” That’s just wrong. I would be happy to share with Adam the e-mails exchanged between my colleagues, Bristol University and Unite, who provide accommodation for 39,000 students around the country, about ensuring students are registered to vote. And I would dare him to don a rosette for ANY political party, try and canvass a hall of residence, and see how long it is before the porters/security try and kick him out…

Yes, Damon, but how do you know they’re working-class? Because I suspect there are a lot of faux-cockneys on that site who are actually out in the home counties earning twice my wages.

Look at Rod Liddle himself, or Richard Littlecock. They put on a man of the people act but they live in Wiltshire and Florida respectively. Why do I never meet a right-wing journalist when I go out clubbing in Burnley? Because these self-appointed experts on the working class avoid working-class people at all costs.

Maybe you think working-class people are stupid, but I don’t.

Many of those Millwall guys will claim to moved out of places like Bermondsey (where it’s important to have grown up or have roots) out to Kent and further afield.

One thing I think they do very thoroughly is sniff out people who they feel are not authentic. So in that way I think they are genuine.
Some will boast about earning good money and living the high life, while others will admit that money is tight and give that as a reason for not being abile to attend all the matches.

‘Why do I never meet a right-wing journalist when I go out clubbing in Burnley?’

As a southerner I can’t answer that, and wouldn’t want to get into stereotypes about whippets and the like.

Working Class? They aren’t always like you might wish them to be.
Like your family.
The SWP dreadfully patronise the working class, Spiked less so IMO.

Lib Dem councilor Alex Woodman points out to me that Nick Clegg has come back round on tuition fees: and has now confirmed Lib Dems would scrap them after all. I am delighted to retract that ( – though the willingness to discuss ditching this policy is not encouraging.

I am not surprised that he has worked hard to win student votes. Alex is a great councillor who will, I’m sure, go far in whatever he chooses to do (see, for example,

Unfortunately he is in the minority.

I have tried canvassing halls with a Green rosette on. Security don’t have a clue what to do – because so few of us ever do this.



I guess what is most frustrating about considering sgu is that nobody sticks to the facts, too many people are quick to put it down without really knowing.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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    RT @liquida #SMM Student activism growing – This time last year, I wrote a piece for The Herald pointing out how un…

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    Student activism growing

  3. AdamRamsay

    See my latest Lib Con piece: RT @libcon Student activism growing

  4. AdamRamsay

    @eusapres @eusavpaa @wesstreeting any thoughts on why SU turnouts are going up again?: see my @libcon piece:

  5. Liberal Conspiracy

    Student activism growing

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