Radicals in retreat

September 22, 2000

Nick Crossley says that student protests are a thing of the past - at least in Greater Manchester

From Paulsgrove to Prague, via gridlocked roads and empty fuel stations, protest has been in the air this summer. The heat of direct action has been turned on at local, national and international levels.

But where does the university and, more particularly, the student population fit into this? Students have often played a key role in social movements and protest, most notably in events of the 1960s and in the late 1980s' pro-democracy movement in China. Sociological studies since the 1960s have consistently identified an overrepresentation of the educated middle classes in the major protest groups, again suggesting a relationship between radicalism and higher education.

But student radicalism is much less evident today, prompting many commentators to wonder whether it exists at all. Although some signs of revival are evident on United States campuses, with students mobilising to challenge the sweatshop system that produces their once-favourite consumer goods, there are no such indications in the United Kingdom. So is higher education a politicising and radicalising experience?

As a first step towards answering this question, I conducted a survey of 1,250 students from the Greater Manchester area: half were sixth-formers, half second or third-year undergraduates. I reasoned that any political impact that higher education has should show up in a comparison between these two groups.

Evidence of differences would not prove that education has a politicising effect, of course, as the life experiences of sixth-formers and undergraduates differ in many ways. But the experiment is an important first step in testing and exploring that possibility.

Three findings were striking. First, the degree of politicisation was low among both groups. Only 39 per cent in all claimed to be interested in politics and the figures for membership of political groups and involvement in political activities was lower still.

Second, there were strong and significant differences between the sixth-formers and the undergraduates. While 56 per cent of undergraduates were interested in politics, this was true of only 21 per cent of the sixth-formers. Undergraduates were also much more likely to be members of a political group or politically active in some way.

Third, and more surprisingly, undergraduates were significantly less likely to identify with more radical positions than sixth-formers.

The number of socialists and anarchists drops between sixth-form and university and there is a substantial drop in the number of animal liberationists and feminists (even after adjustments for gender).

Of the sixth-formers, 20 per cent identify themselves as feminists and 18 per cent as animal liberationists, compared with 15 per cent and 12 per cent respectively in the undergraduate group.

By comparison, undergraduates were over-represented in the ranks of conservatives, liberals, democrats, environmentalists and pacifists. Assuming "pacifism" is a preference for peace talks over violent struggle, I interpret this cluster of preferences as evidence of a more mainstream political orientation among the undergraduate sample.

The overall conclusion is that, all things being equal, a liberal education is, in political terms, just that. Many students are unaffected politically by higher education and those who are gravitate towards the centre ground. The university is no longer a seedbed of radicalism.

This is not to deny that students are peculiarly well placed to become involved in radical politics when and if wider society enters a so-called "cycle of contention", such as "the sixties". Nor should we downplay the fact that higher education cultivates the intellectual and organisational skills that can turn discontent and unrest into effective protest.

Finally, as sociological work on student involvement in the black civil rights movement in the US has shown, liberal political orientations often rest on liberal expectations about the world that are easily shocked and can give way to radicalism.

But there is certainly no intrinsic relationship between higher education and radicalism and all appears quiet on the campus front for the moment. Whether tomorrow's events in Prague will trigger a change remains to be seen.

Nick Crossley is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester and author of the forthcoming Making Sense of Social Movements (Open University Press)

* Are universities seedbeds of liberalism rather than radicalism? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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