Opinion: Students rushing to shun the barricades

Nick Cater

There was a time when you could rely on students, hairy malcontents all, whether they were sitting down in the street, dashing off to demonstrations, confronting the vice chancellor or boycotting Barclays and barely studying at all.

I get misty-eyed recalling how, as a student hack, I reported on the occupation of the admin block in protest at university fees, in which a gooseneck wrecking bar was well to the fore, as was Richard Burden, then firebrand union president, now a rather cooler New Labour MP. But the great days of petition and riot, principles and rebellion were swept aside by a blander, job-seeking student generation that knuckled down and knuckled under during the era of Thatcher and her political heirs.

I had hoped when researching this week's feature on students (page 16) to find a revived flame of protest. The world certainly needs it, and surely Make Poverty History, student loans that offer the young a life of debt and the impetus of a larger and more diverse intake brings fresh blood to the barricades?

Forget it: students are not revolting - much. True, there are sparks here and there, but few appear to be burning the bursar's car or blockading the lab financed by the military-industrial complex.

The abolition of liberty, privacy and free speech by the war on terror has not helped. The keen application of laws old and new - Public Order Act, Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, Terrorism Act, Protection from Harassment Act and more - stifles dissent by putting student protest, indeed any protest, somewhere close to the 11 September attacks.

Despite this, charity, compassion and campaigning are still alive, whether it is Student Action for Refugees, People & Planet or the initiatives encouraged by Student Volunteering England. But many more charities could and should be considering what students can do for them, and vice versa.

For example, student rags seem as busy as ever, although few come close to Loughborough's £600,000 annual fundraising. A frequent demand is for more charities to offer more licences for street collecting anywhere in the country - have tin, will travel (and rattle).

Dragging students out of bed to trawl distant cities for charity pennies seems very fair. If the young can't be bothered to start the revolution, the least that they can do is change the world the slow way.

- Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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