United We Are Heard, Disunited We Are Herded: the Decline in Student Protests
Words by Felix Eldridge
Student protests are a means to demonstrate opposition to something, a method for generating support, an outlet for information sharing, and an opportunity for developing a group spirit amongst likeminded individuals. They were once a powerful tool in the community’s participation in university and civil life.
However, they are waning in influence on campus because of declining turnouts.
Popular demonstrations reflect widespread sentiment and awareness, so a lack of coordination will produce unimpressive results. Given the numbers of tertiary students and their higher level of education, one could expect that a significant number would feel strongly about a range of social, economic and political issues: contentious issues should produce crowds.
However, poor turnout is not necessarily the result of lazy organisers. In fact, it is very difficult for protest organisers to communicate with students. Many campus protests are organised by the Student Representative Council (SRC) or by clubs. These groups do not necessarily share the same views on issues- they have their own individual agendas and wildly differing levels of organizational skill and resources. Moreover, since none of these organizations are entitled to use the ‘all student’ email as a method of advertising events, they must do so by mere word of mouth, social media, and posters. This curtails the audience and therefore the total number of potential participants.
While people may say that social media makes advertising easier, at a campus level it really doesn’t. For instance, the SRC represents over 26,000 students, yet their Facebook page only boasts 1,700 likes. Of these, even fewer people follow the page, fewer still would be current students, and only a tiny fraction would be willing and able to participate in protests. Turnout is further stunted when long term protests are eschewed for so called “snap protests” where potential participants are given only one or two days’ notice.
In simple terms, if you don’t know someone who shares your passion, and don’t regularly check the posters, you probably won’t know about a protest that’s going on right outside your lecture theatre.
Some organizations find common ground, which not only helps build bridges between those organizations but also sets a positive example for others on the campus. Even some of the most bitterly divided student political figures are willing to stand side by side in the pursuit of common goals. That being said, some of the groups drawn to this form of political activism create a bad image for the rest. In 2014, an anti-Tony Abbott protest crowd broke through the police cordon and several were injured. Groups that condone this behaviour contaminate otherwise peaceful events and give protests a bad name.
The lack of participation in student protests mirrors Australian society’s apathy towards politics in general. The last few tumultuous years in federal politics, with multiple prime ministers, policy U-turns, and various damning reports from Royal Commissions have lead many people to write off politics altogether. However, these crises have the potential to inspire larger and more frequent action from university students as more and more issues affect them.
Some of the lacklustre numbers for student protests are due to demographic changes. While the total number of Adelaide University students continues to increase, the composition of those students has changed. In 2003 18% of students were international students, in 2017 the figure was nearly 30%. As the international student body increases, so may indifference to what are seen as purely domestic issues. Furthermore, some international students are afraid of consequences at home if they involve themselves politically overseas.
The rise in enrolled students who are studying externally (off campus) marks another demographic change. These students would be unlikely to enter the campus as most, if not all, of their study is online.
With the demands of coursework and time divided between university and conflicting work commitments, it is clear that students lead busy lives. Standing around on a hot day with a cardboard sign may not be their highest priority.
At the end of the day, protests may no longer resemble the glory days of old, but that in no way signifies their irrelevance. Protests are still an effective way of demonstrating displeasure toward a government or institution. What this generation of students choose to do about it remains to be seen.
So, is the role of student protests doomed to asphyxiation by apathy? Potentially. Is it reversible? Probably. Will the number of protests increase in the future? Weather permitting.
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