Although political radicalism has waned in UK universities since the 1960s, Chris Bunting discovers that some students are far from apathetic about issues of a more global nature.
More than a quarter of a century ago, one of the leading figures in British campus politics heralded a new dawn for student radicalism. "Student politics are changing fast," the young Jack Straw said. "Four years ago, what student unions did, particularly in their relationships with the universities, was of interest to the small group actively engaged in union politics... The vast majority of politically active students regarded union politics as an irrelevance. On the whole, they were probably right."
But the bad old days of student leaders confining themselves to "the renewal of furniture or the quality of refectory food" were over, Straw declared in 1968. A "great upsurge" in campus activism was fundamentally transforming the nature of student politics.
The former president of Leeds University's student union and Britain's current home secretary continued: "There are two important reasons for this change. One is the increasing disillusionment with parliamentary politics caused by the growth of consensus politics. The other is the result of the expansion in higher education (and) the criticism often voiced that universities have been turned into 'graduate factories'."
Straw is now a senior member of a Labour leadership remarkable for its preoccupation with the political middle ground and its commitment to a huge increase in higher education participation. There is widespread criticism among students and academics that pressure to meet the official target of 50 per cent participation is crowding lecture halls and compromising academic standards.
Add to that the rising debts of many students, and you might think the tinder is dry for a blaze in political activism comparable to that of the 1960s. Yet, the opposite seems to be occurring.
Scott Rice, president of the University of London student union, sums up the prevailing view of student union leaders: "The revolution ain't going to be starting on the campus."
Rice, who, as a student union leader at King's College, saw average turnouts for student elections of 19 per cent (good compared with other universities, he says) describes a world reminiscent of the "refectory menu politics" Straw hoped to bury in 1968.
He explains that ultra vires rules, introduced by the last Conservative government, mean student unions cannot spend money on taking part in non-student-related protests. "It may sound selfish, but student officers are trustees and are separately liable if they break those rules," he says.
"Money is tight for the unions and they have to ask themselves whether they spend money on large campaigns or welfare or facilities. Money is tight for the students as well: they might be working part time and focused on getting a job or work experience. Political involvement gets squeezed out."
Karen Dunphie, spokeswoman for the National Union of Students, adds:
"Today's students are more focused on getting a job. Fear of unemployment and the desire to have well-paid employment is at the centre of most people's concerns, not political involvement."
She has a theory for the contrast with the bygone age of student radicalism. "We are not comparing like with like. In the 1960s, there was a more coherent student population. There were fewer universities and the people who attended them were from more middle-class parts of society. These types of people still exist, but they are diluted. Students are different in terms of outlook and in terms of social background," she says.
David Loader, national organiser of Conservative Future, the Conservative Party's youth wing, is more optimistic. He says: "We are being much more proactive at the fresher fairs, we are listening to the students and beginning to get results."
The group's membership has more than doubled in two years, but Loader concedes that the party's total student membership stands at between 2,500 and 3,000, less than a quarter of 1 per cent of higher education students. "They have got a scepticism and cynicism about them nowadays," he says.
So, have we seen the disappearance of the breeding ground that produced German student leader Rudi Dutschke ("Red Rudi"), the French firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit ("Danny the Red") and the likes of Tariq Ali and Jack "The Great Helmsman" Straw?
It may not be that simple. Interestingly, the valedictory speeches halt abruptly when you start to leave the formal structures of student politics. Amnesty International (one of the biggest student activist groups, although it claims not to be narrowly "political") is thriving in universities with 12,000 student members. More than 70 groups in universities and colleges are drawing people to its human rights campaigns.
Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director at the environmental group Friends of the Earth, is also upbeat. "In the ten years I have been involved with the more political side of the environmental movement, there has been a sharp increase in the activity of students," he says. "I think you might even be able to talk about it being reminiscent of the Ban the Bomb protests of the 1960s. We might be seeing a similar disaffection, with mainstream politics failing to talk about the issues that young people think are important. Then, it was the bomb. Now, it is the global market and the environment that are not being addressed."
At the world climate change talks in the Hague in November, Juniper was struck by the number of UKstudents who had paid to travel to the protests.
Several thousand University of Washington students were reported to have formed a hardcore of the demonstrators at the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999. And a series of direct action campaigns mounted since - against companies such as Nike and Pepsi as well as international trade organisations - are attracting unprecedented levels of student interest, say campaigners.
Guy Hughes, one of the organisers of the Hague protest and head of campaigns at People and Planet, a student network working to highlight world poverty, human rights and environmental problems, is excited by the level of activity. He admits that some students are "selfish", but adds that this was true in the 1960s, too.
His organisation has seen its number of branches quadruple in two years and estimates that about 200,000 students took part in the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel world debt last year. (The Treasury received more letters from the student campaign than from any other group except for Christian Aid.) A campaign to force the lecturers' occupational pension scheme to adopt an ethical investment policy, in which student organisations such as People and Planet were involved alongside lecturers' representatives, was also successful. Even bigger mass participation campaigns on climate change and trade justice are planned for 2001.
"It is not just People and Planet. We have lots of organisations becoming active. You have smaller groups, such as the Student Prayer Action Network and Student Action on Refugees, working alongside the more established names. This is a long way from apathy," Hughes says.
Some mainstream student leaders seem to be learning from the success of "direct action" campaigning adopted by People and Planet. Lee Sergent, a member of the NUS national executive committee and a leader of the Campaign for Free Education, highlights the involvement of some unionists in the rash of university "occupations" to protest at loss of grants and the imposition of tuition fees.
"In the marches in London in November, we had 1,000 people occupying Waterloo Bridge. It is not a mass movement yet, but it is starting to get people's attention. The idea among some people that you can have teatime meetings with decision-makers and influence policy has been shown not to work and was really only of interest to a few people wanting to further their political careers. We had a situation a few years ago where we had NUS leaders ahead of the Labour Party in getting rid of grants. That is changing," he says.
His words echo Jack Straw's 1968 denunciation of traditional, exclusive styles of student union politics. The ticklish question is: will Sergent and those of his ilk be perusing red boxes in 2033?