Halls of residence to the corridors of power

May 25, 2001

As many students struggle against poverty, Cherry Canovan gauges their attitudes towards political activism.

The National Union of Students does not want students to vote for any particular party in the general election - it just wants them to vote. NUS president Owain James says: "Students should get involved in politics. I would urge them not to be turned off politics."

But although student activism is reasonably healthy, with demonstrations and other activities attracting good attendances, there are large numbers of students who are not getting involved at all. Despite suffering extreme financial hardship, many do not believe student activism works.

Increasing levels of debt and poverty seem, in fact, to have split students down the middle - into those who are fighting tooth and nail against a perceived injustice, and those who adopt a fatalistic approach.

The campaigning student

Medical student Sarah McMahon has a career as a professional tennis player behind her and is now studying to become a doctor. Heavily in debt, she has had to work long hours to finance her course. But she still finds time to be campaigns officer at University College London's student union.

She is passionate about getting the government to give students a fair deal. When UCL students occupied central administration offices over tuition fees and the expulsion of those who could not pay them, she was in the thick of things.

It is a far cry from her first university experience when, at 19, she won a $15,000-a-year (£10,400) tennis scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. After studying, she played tennis professionally for two years. Then she decided to return to the United Kingdom to pursue her first love: medicine.

Now 25, McMahon is in her fourth year of a medicine degree and estimates she will graduate £30,000 in debt.

She is one of the lucky ones. Because she started her course in 1997, she gets a grant of £2,500 a year. She is also entitled to a loan of £2,255.

At the start of her degree, she worked in a bookshop every night from 5pm to 7pm, and then in the student bar from 7.30pm to 2.30am. But from year four, her course began to involve clinical training, leaving no time for paid work. However, her grant increased to £4,000 a year to allow for the fact that she no longer gets long vacations.

McMahon has had to resort to the college hardship fund and enormous overdrafts. She says: "It is one thing not being able to do anything fun, but another to not have the money to travel to college."

To see her through to the end of her course, McMahon is considering applying for a £10,000 bank loan available to medical students through the British Medical Association.

She feels that a new era of campaigning is dawning, aimed at a dialogue with those in power. "I think possibly student activism as such is old hat in terms of the media," she says. "We are trying to refocus the campaign to have the arguments with the people in charge."

But she admits that many are not interested in getting involved. "The medical school is immensely conservative," she says. "I think it is easy for people to feel disempowered."

The demoralised student

Sophie Kaye, a first-year student at Leeds University studying theology and sociology, is enjoying her course, but not the financial situation that studying has forced her into. However, she does not believe campaigning will make much difference.

Although Kaye does not get much financial support from her parents and has taken out a full £3,750 loan, she has to pay one-fifth of the maximum tuition fee.

She spends £2,300 a year on her halls of residence plus about £13 a week on bus fares because the university is 45 minutes away. Next year she will move into rented accommodation at a cost of £48 a week, and she will have to pay rent over the summer despite the fact that she will be temping in London. The total cost of her accommodation next year will be £2,496.

Her friends are in the same boat, but very few believe that campaigning can make a difference. "I don't get involved in rallying," she says. "Some of my friends have been to London on marches, but I haven't seen any improvement - it seems to be fruitless. I know a lot of people who don't bother - they feel they can't make a difference. I'm demoralised about the whole situation."

She believes lobbying may be a more effective way to approach the problem, but is not overly optimistic. "I don't know at what point the government will listen."

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