Late in February I hosted the annual reception of the National Union of Students on the House of Commons Terrace. By coincidence the occasion coincided with my birthday and I recall that half a lifetime ago I had spent the evening of my 21st birthday (or at least the earlier part of it) speaking at a student union hustings. The availability of free beer had made it a particularly lively affair. As University of York students go to the polls to elect next year’s sabbaticals and executive it is perhaps an appropriate time to ask, is it all worth it?
Some student union activists get criticised for being primarily interested in developing their own curriculum vitaes. I have always thought this judgement a little harsh. Motives in life are invariably mixed but a more positive view is surely that student unions, athletic unions and junior common rooms give many people an early opportunity in life to shoulder some real responsibility and get some political experience – whether with a small or a capital ‘p’. It may be many decades before these same people are able to influence their immediate environment so directly again.
Equally, the very fact of casting a vote in such elections is for many the first real act of participation in democracy in their lives. The bread and butter issues of student life, whether it be safety or the allocation of budgets, are the stuff of basic politics the world over and none the worse for that.
As I chatted to students on the Terrace last month and looked out over the Thames it was impossible not to reflect on all the interventions in national politics made by students since the formation of the National Union of Students in 1922. Many times down the decades students from across the nation have in the early hours of the morning, bleary eyed, stumbled out of bed to board a bus and make their way to Westminster to demonstrate about the great issues of the day. Sometimes the cause has been matters of peace and war, poverty at home and abroad or the future of our universities. Invariably the injection of youthful idealism has been to the benefit of our democracy and made the rest of the nation sit up and think. Two million people for example watched the debate on student top up fees live on the BBC Parliament channel.
Student activism is by no means only a British phenomenon. In recent months students were one of the main organising forces behind the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and as I write Lebanese students are camping out in the streets of Beirut demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their nation.
In reality, even in the most exciting of times student union activism is always going to be a minority taste, although most students will benefit from student union activities throughout their university career, from freshers fair onwards. Of course there are many other minority tastes which enrich our society such as Radio 3, cricket and the opera. Like them student unions enhance our lives because even if we do not often think about them or participate in them it is good to know that they are there if we want them.