I wrote this post for a friend of mine for a new student activism blog she has set up. You can visit the full blog at http://beyoungshutup.wordpress.com/
When I was an undergraduate in the late nineties to early naughties the student union was a place of entertainment then employment, as well as somewhere to go for support when needed. I guess I was part of the apathetic years – I voted in the union elections, but was unaware and uninterested in how the wider NUSfunctioned. Tutition fees and loans had come in a few years before and there seemed to be little chance in protesting against them now. The only activisim I was aware of was when one of my house mates lecturers went on strike and he didn’t get his assignment marked very quickly.
Perhaps I underplay it. I learnt about the campaign against Nestle due to baby milk in Africa, and in fact I was friends with the president, so may have been more aware than my peers. I didn’t however go to any rallies or protests.
At graduation, the Chancellor, Lord Glenamara (former Education secrtary Ted Short) called on us to write to the PM about the changes to education and the rise in fees by £25 a year. Education should be free, and we all knew where Mr Blair lived.
I left uni and settled into the world of work, eventually becoming a youth worker and joining Unison. Not long after joining I was balloted on strike action on changes to the local government pension scheme. The ballot called for action, and I had to explore the dilemma for myself between denying the young people I worked with a service or doing something collectively for something I believed in. I not only withdrew my labour, but volunteered to go on the picket line. When I turned up at the appointed hour I was told that the picket line was closing due to a lack of leaflets. I was not impressed.
Not long after I switched to the Community & Youth Workers Union (CYWU) which was most relevent to me. However, I had no local branch so was a bit of a floating member. Things then started to change. Firstly, a new colleague joined who was a member, and between us we worked to set up a branch. I also started studying again – part time whilst working full time – and CYWU ran a student conference which I attended. Over three days I learnt more about the union movement, explored issues for both undergraduate and postgraduate students in all their different attendance methods and looked at the specifics relating to youth work training – poor teaching accomodation, a lack of library resources, no funding for placements (which are a compulsory part of the course) and linking to the issues facing the profession, a lack of qualified supervisors and more. I was elected to the role of student convenor. All of this was in 2008. Since then I have been on the national committee, organised a conference and attended various rallies and protests about cuts to services and threats to terms and conditions. I also stewarded at the recent Choose Youth rally. I have also changed job and relocated, and am now secretary of my local branch which I helped to re-establish. Since the general election in May 2010 things have be moving very quickly. I am in awe that students managed to get mobilsied so quickly, and ashamed that I, and others in my union have been slow off the mark in the face of everything that is going on. There is evidently much we can learn from you, but I am hopeful there is stuff you can learn from us too.
Please join us in London on 26th March for the TUC march and rally and give a clear message to the government.