The travails of student politics

I entered university as a student slightly later than most of my contemporaries. After I left school I decided to take a job rather than become a student. I did this for a couple of years before changing my mind and deciding to study law. I started in Trinity College Dublin on a bright October morning in 1974, and decided that I’d probably learn more about TCD by taking a tour organised by what was then called the Student Representative Council. We were given a student handbook and asked to study this before the actual tour.

The handbook was totally wonderful, featuring as it did two motivational articles, one each by the SRC President and the Vice-President. Except that the two of them didn’t agree on much. The President was a key activist in the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), which in turn saw itself as mostly following the teachings of Chairman Mao, and later Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha. It liked armed liberation struggles (including in Northern Ireland), but was not much into liberal decadence. The same President once suggested during a debate on gay rights that this wasn’t much of an issue in Mao’s China, meaning that that was the end of the matter. His contribution to the student manual was to call for a struggle to free the working classes globally and beyond. He believed that it was every student’s duty to oppose the capitalist bourgeoisie, including its placemen in university management.

The Deputy President was an altogether different man; indeed he more or less personified the ‘liberal decadence’ so disliked by his President. His contribution to the manual consisted of exhortations to enjoy sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, in whichever order suited.

The year that followed this induction saw some major actions in the university, in pursuit of the various ideals of both student leaders. Without necessarily suggesting I pursued all of his proposals, I much preferred the Deputy President; he was without doubt rather good company, and it may be worth saying in passing that he was later a known figure in Irish broadcasting circles long after the President dropped into complete obscurity. But in a year off occupations and protests and marches and demonstrations, most students got on with their studies, many of them completely oblivious of all or any of this.

But are student politics irrelevant? One key moment in all of the fun back in 1974 was during a debate organised by the SRC, which featured a motion that ‘we’ should liberate South Africa’. It was not a bad debate, and it included really interesting contributions from leaders of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, one of these suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe the TCD Student Representative Council,  regardless of how it voted on the motion, would not itself liberate South Africa; what would matter more would be persuading the influential western middle classes that this was a goal worth pursuing. There was complete silence at this suggestion, as students digested the horrible possibility that they were not in the vanguard of liberation. There was no applause.

The issues around student politics are maybe not that different today, as this recent assessment by a current student indicates. Today’s student leaders still sometimes manage to fight battles that don’t particularly resonate with the masses and that over-play the impact of student politics. But student politics do matter. They provide an opportunity for engagement and for debate, and so at the very least they allow students to develop leadership skills. Maybe student politicians sometimes over-estimate the interest felt by most students in radical politics, but many of them go on to be highly persuasive as politicians in the ‘real’ system.

I’m glad I don’t face the particular brand of political agitation favoured by my student president in 1974 – but I’m glad also that students still come forward to represent their colleagues and hold us to account. Doing so provides a genuine service.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, students, university


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7 Comments on “The travails of student politics”

  1. I once asked my parents about their participation in TCD’s protest movement (they graduated in ’71): they weren’t aware there had been one (and wouldn’t have joined in if they had been).

    There’s a comedy aspect to the ambitiousness of the things you describe, but if you can’t be an idealist when you’re a student, when can you? I look at the SU at my own HEI and despair: they’ve been tamed utterly, and now operate as nothing more than a wing of the marketing department. They have no politics or even independence. I don’t know if this is a function of powerlessness (politics to them is like the weather: it originates a long way off and there’s nothing they can do about it) or of the consumerism that’s determined their educational experience. Also, virtually all of them are the first people in their families to attend university: they don’t have the middle-class cultural capital associated with campaigning, nor do they have family backgrounds of trades unionism and working-class activism.

  2. Vince Says:

    My memory of student politics is somewhat jaundiced. Where it should be a nursery for those that want to get involved it tends to be little more than a nepotistic organ to keep relatives of existing politicians into the game.
    Or to rephrase, there is little chance of a student from a family where they are the first to attend getting very far, if allowed in at all.

    • NW Says:

      In Ireland, Mary Harney, Pat Rabitte, Eamon Gilmore, Alex White were not children of politicians but all started out in student politics (and I think none had parents who were graduates)

    • no name Says:

      “Where it should be a nursery for those that want to get involved it tends to be little more than a nepotistic organ….”

      Does not its being a “nepotistic organ” make student politics a perfect nursery for those who attempt to excel in the wider Irish context? Ireland is not widely known as a meritocracy.

    • NiallW Says:

      Student politics gave a start to Mary Harney, Alex White, Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabitte – none of whom were related to existing politicians – and all I think were ‘first attenders’

  3. NW Says:

    You might be interested to know that the Marxist-Leninist president went on to a career in a multinational pharmaceutical company

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