Published in The Australian on February 21 2014.
The National Union of Students held a Day of Action last week, championing demonstrations and marches in every major city to protest against proposed $2.3 billion cuts to federal funding of tertiary education.
It sounds impressive, but there’s a reason the rallies went mostly ignored; nationwide, only 1500 students turned up.
The pouring rain obviously played a part, but to put that figure in perspective, there are more than one million university students studying in Australia.
Indeed, last week’s effort pales in comparison to the demonstrations in eras gone by where students realised the effects of government decisions on their education and readily took to the streets to communicate their dissent.
So is student activism dead in Australia?
NUS Canberra branch president Tom Nock doesn’t think so. He reckons students are still politically engaged but take to alternative mediums to voice their views and concerns.
“Students have always been known for having strong opinions without the fear to express them. But I think the change is that you’re more likely to find their opinions in a Facebook comment than on a placard.”
Students may be just as engaged in and educated about politics today, but there is certainly a pervading sense of cynicism and defeatism surrounding the merits of protesting. When a Labor government proposes steep cuts that are supported as soon as a Liberal government takes office, it’s not surprising that students are not too sure where to turn.
In 2012 more than 1000 students at the Australian National University attended a march against major cuts to their school of music. Today, students are largely ignored and their opinions dismissed, so what’s the point? NUS education officer Sarah Garnham says it comes down to the fact if university students don’t protest cuts to their education, who will? Although universities are a vital investment in Australia’s future, it is up to students to take up the fight against cuts because no one else is going to do it for them.
“Students need to stand up for themselves. If students are going to have any chance of defending the principle of quality education (as opposed to education for the sake of profits) they have to be prepared to stand on their own two feet and try to build public support around our right to education.”
Regardless, half the battle for student activists these days seems to be dealing with their apathetic and cynical peers to inspire some kind of passion and fight that is ultimately in their best interests.
Does student activism need a different direction, because whatever is being done now is obviously not working. At ANU, only 50 students turned up to the Day of Action.
“The days of effective marching, shouting student demonstrations are long over; protests, petitions and posters are no longer the best methods to protect students’ educational rights — in fact, they weaken the cause when poorly executed,” says ANU graduate Yasmin Masri.
Masri points to alternative means of engaging the wider community, and this is where social media comes in. Social media has become the key method of mobilising students through events and pages shared via Facebook. Yet, as evidenced last week, its effectiveness in getting students to the streets is underwhelming.
The one-dimensional approach of using social media only for advertising is under-using a valuable resource while even being detrimental to the cause.
A significant hindrance is a recent phenomenon known as “slacktivism”, where political activity becomes simply the act of liking a post or sharing a video withoutever having to leave your computer screen or think more deeply about the issues.
A classic example is Kony 2012 by Invisible Children, a campaign embraced on social media.
The video it centred on became the most viral in history, hitting 100 million YouTube views in six days. But when it came to spurring action the campaign fell flat; 18,700 people clicked attending an Invisible Children Facebook event based in Sydney, but only 25 people showed up. In a similar vein, only one-fifth of Facebook attendees to the ANU National Day of Action turned out.
The use of social media in student activism needs to expand far beyond the simple advertisement of protests. It needs to be used innovatively and creatively to capture the attention of students, to inspire change by educating and raising awareness rather than driving people on to the streets with placards. That said, the days of demonstrations aren’t necessarily over, they just have to be considered one element of a campaign, the success of which is not measured by protester numbers
“Talking to people face to face about why a campaign is relevant to them is much more compelling than the impersonal reach that social media has and most people that get involved in activism attribute it to the fact that they were convinced by someone who they spoke to in person,” says Garnham.
Student activism in Australia is not dead, it is merely in a period of adjustment, exploring the potential of social media and technology as a new means to the same ends that have been fought for by students for generations.