Fees killing the radical spirit, academics told

November 2, 2006

Demonstrations, occupations and boycotts were once rites of passage for undergraduates, but research suggests that tuition fees are helping to kill off a grand tradition of student radicalism, academics heard this week.

Speaking at a British Sociological Association conference titled Fees: Focusing on the 'F' word , Esmee Hanna, a PhD student at Leeds University, compared student activism in the heady 1960s with that of today.

She discovered that modern students are obsessed with value for money and have little time for anything other than work and perhaps a little play. She told academics: "Student radicalism is dying; it is almost dead. Students just don't have time for it anymore.

"I think if we were in the 1960s, the issue of tuition fees would have triggered so many more demonstrations and meetings.

"Student union politics today is just a fashion parade for the few who want to go into mainstream politics. If students are unhappy about something nowadays, they go down the legal route.

"The fights of students in the 1960s for a student voice in institutional decisions has ultimately been won, but [it has happened] through the power of the pound in an increasingly marketised system of higher education."

Ms Hanna has based her findings on interviews with students and the undergraduate sociology tutorials she takes.

She drew a parallel between the issues faced by students in the 1960s and today. "Back then, students stormed the barricades over the war in Vietnam and changes to grants and the curriculum."

Although tens of thousands of students marched against the war in Iraq in February 2003, Ms Hanna said students had quickly become disenchanted with the issue. "There was no immediate gratification after the demonstrations, so an attitude that protests don't really work prevailed."

But Joyce Canaan, a reader in sociology in the department of social sciences at the University of Central England, was less pessimistic about students' radicalism. She said: "My students are very troubled by the world in which they live and, in particular, the future of the planet. I detect the rumblings of a revival in student activism. But it is true that no longer are students prepared to storm the barricades. They are busy working to fund their studies. Learning for the sake of earning preoccupies them today."

The conference was organised by the British Sociological Association Researching Students Study Group and the Society for Research into Higher Education Student Experience Network.

Esmee Hanna is keen to hear from anyone with photographs or documents from 1960s student protests. E-mail: sp15esh@leeds.ac.uk

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