Green Issues Are Today's Red-Hot Topic; Which Political Issues Are Modern Students Fighting for? and How Does the Current Crop of Activists Intend to Inspire a Disillusioned Generation of Voters? Tom Barlow Reports

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

Green Issues Are Today's Red-Hot Topic; Which Political Issues Are Modern Students Fighting for? and How Does the Current Crop of Activists Intend to Inspire a Disillusioned Generation of Voters? Tom Barlow Reports


Byline: TOM BARLOW

IT'S freshers' week and, alongside the fairs and freebies, swarms of unpaid student politicians are getting busy. As he has done for the past few years, psychology postgraduate Viren Swami will set up two stalls at the University College London (UCL) Freshers' Fair in an attempt to persuade newcomers to sign up for political forums, discussions and debate.

"Afterwards, we organise a big political meeting for the second week of term," says Swami, 24, who belongs to his university's Student Socialist Workers' Society. "A lot of students are hungry to get politically active when they arrive here."

Student politics can be serious or silly.

Organisations such as the Conservative and Unionist Association at York University publicises itself as "the largest, most active, most alcoholic political party on campus", offering "all you can drink" signup sessions and a weekly "debate and curry".

It can also be diverse. Societies such as York's United Nations Association has regular, open discussions on issues such as Aids and the Middle East, and also runs charity events for Oxfam and Human Rights Watch.

If lobbying and canvassing appeal, you could always put yourself forward for a position at the students' union; and you won't need any particular affiliation to write for your university newspaper.

For all its diversity, student politics today is a far cry from the late Sixties, when anti-Vietnam banners hung between pinnacles of King's College Chapel, Cambridge and undergraduate hacks such as Jon Snow covered student sit-ins.

Although this is the generation that faces top-up fees and student loans, 77 per cent of first-year university students say they are not interested in taking part in political protests, according to a Lloyds TSB student panel.

This year's Mori/Unite survey of student living suggests that disillusionment is rampant, with young people feeling that the Government is "out of touch" with their needs.

Yet amid such cynicism, political groups such as Conservative Future boast almost 10,000 members, many of whom are undergraduates. On campuses across the UK they organise regular debates with fellow Young Labour and Lib Dem students on issues such as Iraq, the NHS, tax and tuition fees.

Student activists report that it is an uphill battle to entice people to attend such events when they compete with an evening down the pub. But Sally Zlotowitz, chair of the Young Greens, isn't alone in finding that recent events in Iraq have boosted interest.

"Overall I think awareness is growing," says the UCL student, also an active participant of People and Planet, a student action body that focuses on human rights and the environment.

"When the Stop the War Coalition formed we ran workshops and meetings before the marches. The response was great, it showed what could be done if everybody tried."

In her role in the Young Greens, Zlotowitz has found that campaigns such as fair trade and the promotion of locally produced products are crowd-pullers.

"Even the Lib Dems sell themselves on campus as a greenorientated party now," she says. "Getting people to like our policies isn't a problem. But getting people involved is the difficult thing.

You have to be quite proactive."

Another option is involvement with the National Union of Students (NUS), the campaigning organisation representing three-and-a-half million students.

Hasan Salim Patel, a graduate from Leicester University, was one of the first Muslims to be elected onto the NUS.

"If you asked Muslim students a couple of years ago about funding, I don't think they really had a clue, but the sense that the system is letting Muslims down has spearheaded some to think 'hang on, what can we do? …

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